NASA’s MAVEN Sees Solar Wind Disappearing, Resulting in Mars’ Magnetosphere Swelling

  • Unprecedented Solar Event: In December 2022, NASA’s MAVEN mission witnessed a rare solar event causing a dramatic and unexpected disappearance of the solar wind, impacting Mars.
  • Solar Wind Void: The event created a void in the solar wind, leading to a significant drop in the number of particles reaching Mars and causing the Martian atmosphere to expand by thousands of kilometers.
  • Unique Mars Transformation: The density decrease in solar wind triggered a threefold expansion of Mars’ magnetosphere and ionosphere, altering their characteristics. The Sun’s magnetic field was pushed outwards, transforming the ionosphere.
  • Electromagnetic Quiet Phase: The interaction left the region between the solar wind and magnetosphere unusually electromagnetically quiet, providing insights into the dynamics of Mars’ response to extreme solar conditions.
  • Scientific Significance: MAVEN’s observations during this rare event offer invaluable data for understanding the physics driving atmospheric and water loss on Mars, providing a unique perspective on the planet’s behavior in the absence of solar wind.
  • Cross-Divisional Role of MAVEN: As the Sun approaches solar maximum, MAVEN’s dual role in observing both Martian atmosphere dynamics and solar inputs enhances our understanding of Mars and the Sun, showcasing its pivotal role in space exploration.
MAVEN Artist's Concept Orbiting Mars: This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. Credits: NASA/GSFC
MAVEN Artist’s Concept Orbiting Mars: This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars.
Credits: NASA/GSFC

MAVEN Witnesses Rare Solar Wind Disappearance

In a surprising turn of events in December 2022, NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission witnessed a remarkable occurrence in our solar system. The usually constant stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun, known as the solar wind, suddenly vanished. This unexpected phenomenon was triggered by a powerful solar event, creating a void as it traveled through space.

The impact of this event was evident in MAVEN’s measurements at Mars, revealing a significant drop in the number of particles comprising the solar wind. With the absence of this solar wind pressure, the Martian atmosphere and magnetosphere expanded by thousands of kilometers. MAVEN stands out as the sole asset at Mars with the capability to simultaneously monitor both the Sun’s activity and the Martian atmosphere’s response to these solar influences. This unique observation sheds light on the intricate relationship between the Sun and the Martian environment.

“When we first saw the data, and how dramatic the drop in the solar wind was, it was almost unbelievable,” said Jasper Halekas, professor at the University of Iowa and the lead author on a new study on the event. “We formed a working group to study the event, and we have found this time period to be rich with incredible findings.”

Mars had a rare cosmic encounter in December 2022 when a speedy solar wind event created a unique phenomenon. Imagine it like a race in space, where faster solar wind caught up with the slower kind, resulting in a collision that NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft observed. This collision, known as a stream interaction region, left behind an unusual low-density solar wind zone.

This cosmic happening had a remarkable impact on Mars. The drop in solar wind density by a whopping 100 times caused the planet’s magnetosphere and ionosphere to expand significantly—more than three times their usual size. Picture it like Mars puffing up in response to this cosmic breeze.

The Sun’s magnetic field, typically snug within Mars’ ionosphere, was pushed outward during this cosmic event. This pushed Mars’ ionosphere from a magnetized to an unmagnetized state, creating a rare cosmic spectacle. At the same time, the area between the solar wind and the planet’s magnetosphere became unusually calm in terms of electromagnetic activity.

All these changes were documented by MAVEN, and scientists are excited because understanding these cosmic dances helps unravel the mysteries of Mars’ atmosphere and water loss. It’s like solving a space puzzle that could potentially provide insights into the broader workings of our solar system. So, Mars’ encounter with the solar wind wasn’t just a celestial event—it was a scientific jackpot for researchers trying to decode the Red Planet’s secrets.

“We are really getting to see how Mars responds when the solar wind is effectively removed,” Halekas added. “It makes for a great outlier study on what Mars would be like if it were orbiting a less ‘windy’ star.” 

Events where solar wind mysteriously disappears at this magnitude are exceptionally uncommon, especially during a period of heightened solar activity. Hence, this marked the inaugural instance for the MAVEN mission to witness such a spectacle. While other spacecraft positioned at Mars and Earth managed to catch glimpses of different facets of this occurrence, MAVEN stood out as the sole craft capable of concurrently gauging measurements from both the Sun and the Martian atmosphere’s reaction to this phenomenon.

“Observing extreme conditions is always scientifically invaluable,” said Shannon Curry, principal investigator for MAVEN at the University of California, Berkeley. “MAVEN was designed to observe these types of interactions between the Sun and the Martian atmosphere, and the spacecraft provided exceptional data during this truly anomalous solar event.”

As the Sun heads toward its peak activity in the 11-year cycle known as solar maximum, the MAVEN mission is poised to play a more significant role in enhancing our comprehension of intense solar events.

“This really shows the cross-divisional role that MAVEN plays at Mars,” said Gina DiBraccio, MAVEN’s deputy principal investigator and deputy director of the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “MAVEN is not only observing the dynamics of the Martian atmosphere, it is also monitoring solar inputs to enhance our understanding of the Sun.”

The findings from this research are currently being showcased at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

The head investigator for MAVEN is located at the University of California, Berkeley. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland oversees the MAVEN mission, with Lockheed Martin Space handling spacecraft construction and mission operations. Navigation and Deep Space Network support come from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder manages science operations and handles public outreach and communications. As the MAVEN team gears up to mark the spacecraft’s 10th year at Mars in September 2024, they continue their dedicated efforts in unraveling the mysteries of the Red Planet.

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Source(s): NASA; The Register

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