Hope's Mars discovery is blowing in the wind

The UAE’s Hope Mars mission has discovered an interesting new type of aurora around the Red Planet.

Emirates Mars mission
Other-worldly: Auroras on Mars photographed by the Hope spacecraft. Picture: Emirates Mars mission.

The Dh735m ($200m) Emirates Mars mission was launched in July 2020 from Tanegashima, Japan. The Hope spacecraft has been orbiting the Red Planet since February 9, 2021 and is currently the jewel in the UAE’s crown in terms of space activities.

The mission’s three main objectives were to develop the science and technology sector in the emirates, develop UAE-scientific capabilities, and increase the country’s contribution to the global science community.

Now, Hope’s Emirates Mars ultraviolet spectrometer (EMUS) has detected ‘patchy’ proton auroras, which were unexpected.

Auroras first appeared with NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, and subsequently showed up in data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

The auroras are believed to be caused by interaction between Mars’ atmosphere and the solar wind emanating from the Sun. As incoming protons from the Sun, moving at about 400-600 kilometres per second, hit the upper atmosphere and slow down, ultra-violet light is released.

As Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field like Earth, these auroras are not concentrated at the planet’s poles, but appear all over the planet.

However, scientists were surprised to discover the patchy nature of some of the aurora, which suggests another force may be in play, such as unexpectedly chaotic conditions where the solar wind interacts with the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere.

Hope and MAVEN have now provided a comprehensive view of what is occurring in Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Hessa Al Matroushi, Hope’s lead scientist, said: “Access to MAVEN data has been essential for placing these new observations into a wider context.

“Our discovery of these patchy proton auroras adds a new kind of event to the long list of those currently studied by the Emirates Mars mission and challenges our existing views of how the proton auroras on Mars’ dayside are formed.

“Together, we’re pushing the boundaries for our existing knowledge, not only of Mars but of planetary interactions with the solar wind.”

While these two spacecraft showed uniform auroral emissions across the dayside of Mars, the Emirati probe spotted blotches, adding key details about the aurora on the planet.

By getting a complete view of Mars’ upper atmosphere, scientists can perform investigations into its history and how it functions today.

Previous missions have continuously found evidence that suggests Mars was wet and warm at some point in its past. Then the planet experienced atmospheric loss, leading to the desolate desert world we see today.

This auroral work is an important step in Hope’s four-year mission to better understand the planet’s atmospheric evolution and escape. This information may prove to be invaluable as Earth could suffer the same fate as Mars at some point in the distant future.

Steve Nichols

Steve Nichols

Steve (BSc Hons, FIIC) is a journalist and communicator with more than 35 years' experience.