Discovering Mars’s Auroras: Deciphering the Red Planet’s Martian Lights Through NASA CAMERAS

As space exploration continues to open up new worlds, it is not only the weirdness of what we discover out there that is fascinating, but also the weirdness of the technology that can get us there and show us things we never thought possible. CAMERAS are a leading actor in the telescope play, and they too produce weirdness in how they enable us to penetrate the cosmos. Over the past few solar storms we have been witnessing how they impact elsewhere, notably on Mars.

The Impact of Solar Storms on Mars

Understanding the Martian Radiation Environment

Our neighbour Mars, with its tenuous atmosphere, is an interesting and challenging place to investigate. Today, with another uptick in our sun’s activities, we remind ourselves that a key aspect of this challenge is a radiation environment that we need to understand if (and when) we attempt to send humans to Mars. Our robotic rovers, such as Curiosity, have become our eyes on Mars, suffering right alongside us through the onslaught of solar storms and the challenges they present for our future explorers of Mars.

How CAMERAS Reveal the Effects of Solar Storms

Onboard CAMERAS mounted to the Curiosity rover have done more than peer at the rocky, arid Martian vistas; they have become particle detectors within the solar storms, the charged particles hitting the CAMERAS’ sensors, leaving a wave of static, like snowflakes or static interference on a screen – not only a direct visual view of the solar-storm energy, but also a warning of how it could harm astronauts.

The Hazardous Beauty of Martian Auroras

A Radiation Dose Unlike Any Other

Many people know auroras as those colourful light shows that dazzle Earth’s poles. Captured through NASA CAMERAS aboard orbiting spacecraft, the Martian version might look familiar, but it’s much harder on the eyes. It’s an aurora with teeth. The CAMERAS carry no safe warning about the risk of a substantial radiation dose for any human explorers in the area. Mars’s auroras would subject humans to radiation equivalent to several chest X-rays.

Mars' Natural Shields: A Possible Haven

Three-dimensional features, such as cliffsides and lava tubes, make up some of Martian nature’s best sheltered spots when it comes to reducing the astronauts’ exposure to solar-induced radiation – which can be chronic and potentially fatal if the crew members are outside too long. The CAMERAS and other instruments we tested reveal ideas for protecting astronauts from space weather hazards.

The Broader Implications of Solar Activity

Effects on Martian and Earthly Technology

In fact, the Mars Odyssey and MAVEN orbiter (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolutiom) that are currently orbiting Mars and probing its lower atmosphere have also felt some of the wrath of solar storms, with CAMERAS and other sensitive instruments temporarily going haywire. Whether it will truly orbit the planet for a full Martian year will depend on more than just its own fuel supply. It will also hinge on the frequency and strength of solar storms. Hopefully for human colonisation, we will have evolved a better understanding of how the Sun affects other planets by then.

A Continuous Challenge: The Sun's Unpredictable Fury

These recent events are a reminder of the Sun’s capricious nature, and its effects far beyond Earth. As Curiosity and MAVEN’s CAMERAS continue to capture these phenomena, scientists will be reminded that the real-time monitoring of solar activity will always be a critical aspect of spacecraft operations. Mars’ auroras and radiation environment will continue to be studied, not only for improving our knowledge of the planet, but also for eventual Mars exploration.

Beyond the Lens: Understanding CAMERAS and Their Role in Space Exploration

CAMERAS are a medium for recording visual data but they are also witnesses to unseen forces of cosmic law. They see what our own eyes cannot. They reveal the beauty of Martian auroras and bear witness to the reality of solar-induced radiation. CAMERAS are a portal through which we perceive the intricacies of the universe, and by extension, our own identity. These tools are essential tools of observation. However, we can never really be sure without direct human observation. The bottom line is, we’re still learning.

Jun 12, 2024
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