Riding the Cosmic WAVE: The Unseen Spectacle of Mars' Solar Dance

The most delicious light show on Earth was dwarfed last month when Mars was silhouetted against an outer space display of colour and motion, all sparked by the Sun’s anger. Thanks to the eyes of the NASA Curiosity rover and the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter, this show offered a glimpse of the beauty of interplanetary interaction, but also a chance to observe a sort of natural experiment in the evolving study of Mars, and elsewhere, as extraterrestrial worlds come into focus. To understand this cosmic cadavre exquis, let’s start at the Sun.

Solar Fury: A WAVE of Energy Unleashed

On 20 May 2023, the Sun spewed a fireball of energy out into space, sending a cloud of charged particles and radiation racing toward Mars at 4.5 million kilometres an hour. The event was a visual rarity and a scientific bonanza, made possible by Martian equipment that has returned data previously collected only by spacecraft orbiting the Sun.

The Martian Chronicles: Curiosity's Radiation Revelations

Curiosity, the intrepid expeditionary vehicle that’s been roaming around Mars for more than 12 years, was hit particularly hard by this solar blast. The rover logged the highest radiation dose it’s seen since it landed in 2012 – a reading of 8,100 micrograys, which is roughly the equivalent of 30 chest X-rays. Curiosity’s explorations could help provide a glimpse into the sort of dangers that astronauts on Mars might face in future decades. And NASA is planning to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

A Spectacle in the Martian Sky: The Aurora Phenomenon

As the solar storm battered Earth, at Mars the same particle rain painted prismatic auroras across the planet’s night sky, quadruple glimpses of petrol blue, charcoal grey and brilliant red, affirming the way that the most disruptive events in the solar system can also be among the prettiest. On 27 September 2014, shortly after Earth’s passage through the cloud of solar particles, MAVEN passed overhead, its camera trained toward the sky. Soon, the quivering shimmer of otherworldly lights began to appear, a hint that the Earth is not alone in our solar system.

The Sun's Energetic Symphony: A WAVE of Discovery

X12-class solar flare caught by NASA’s Solar Orbiter blasting out a wave of X-rays, gamma rays and charged particles, monitored by the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office. Courtesy NASA/EU The Sun is an extraordinary power source, and these explosions travel rapidly over vast distances of space.

Mars' Shielding Strategies: Safeguarding Future Astronauts

As the day approaches when we can put actual human feet on the surface of Mars, finding out what works best to shield astronauts from the radiation that travels with the Sun could become a matter of life and death. Cliffsides or lava tubes may be astronaut-friendly refuges, and the same heat ground cover that could shield individual off-worlders could someday be used for an entire city.

Navigating the Solar Maximum: A WAVE of Sunspots

As the Sun generates more sunspot activity, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections as it reaches the solar maximum of its 11-year cycle, this increased solar activity provides new challenges and opportunities for space weather research, allowing us to further understand the impacts that solar activity has on our technology and atmosphere.

The Enduring Influence of WAVEs

From the solar eruptions that fuel our imaginations to the waves that carry our technology to new worlds, the wave is becoming the star of the cosmic ballet for a species on the cusp of interplanetary civilisation. If we are to become a multi-planetary species, we will need to harvest the wave’s power, discern our effects upon it, and learn to surf its briny curl.

About Wave

In the paragraphs above, the word wave does a lot of work. It not only represents the energy flowing to Mars from the Sun, it is also a way of describing the temporal patterning of that solar activity, as well as the possible human impacts of that activity. Each time the word is used, it represents not just the reality of solar waves, but of the whole event of the dynamic cosmos, where forces are constantly dancing.

With every new insight, humans’ grasp on our galaxy increases, and the twin beacons of our night sky seem just a little bit closer.

Jun 12, 2024
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