• Unlike Earth’s, Mars’ global magnetic field has mostly decayed, leaving only patches of magnetism where Mars’ crust has hardened over billions of years
  • Since the decay of a magnetic field is intricately tied to the loss of a thick atmosphere, the images go some way toward informing scientists of how the Martian surface turned uninhabitable over time
  • Curiously, taking these images weren’t even part of Hope’s mission brief

The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter that’s been circling Mars since February has, via its ultraviolet spectrometer, captured some of the most fascinating images of ‘discrete auroras’ on Mars. 
“The full set of data collected during these observations include far and extreme ultraviolet auroral emissions which have never been imaged before at Mars,” said the UAE Space Agency on its Hope website. 
What are auroras? 
When charged particles shot out from the Sun through solar winds arrive towards us, the Earth’s magnetic field deflects them around the planet. These ionised particles travel along Earth’s magnetic field towards the planet’s poles, eventually interacting with the various gases in the atmosphere to cause brilliant, radiating curtains of light in the night sky. 
These displays are known as auroras and are typically seen in the Earth’s high latitude regions around the year. In the north, these lights are known as aurora borealis (or Northern Lights) whereas in the south, they are called aurora australis (or Southern Lights). 
Images captured by Hope’s onboard spectrometer (left) and an artist’s rendering (right) of discrete auroras on Mars’ night side. Credit: Emirates Mars Mission
What did Hope capture?
We’ve known that the same thing does happen on Mars as well but not nearly in the same manner as it does on Earth. Unlike Earth’s, Mars’ global magnetic field has mostly decayed, leaving only patches of magnetism where Mars’ crust has hardened over billions of years. These areas retain some of that original magnetism, and it is in these regions where auroras form on the planet. 
“The beacons of light that stand out against the dark nightside disk are highly structured discrete aurora, which traces out where energetic particles excite the atmosphere after being funnelled down by a patchy network of crustal magnetic fields that originate from minerals on the surface of Mars,” said the UAE Space Agency. 
The images captured by the Hope orbiter are significant in that they are the most detailed visuals of these discrete auroral structures in the Martian atmosphere. As such, they represent an important tool in understanding the history of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and specifically how it died out. Since the decay of a magnetic field is intricately tied to the loss of a thick atmosphere, they go some way toward informing scientists of how the Martian surface turned uninhabitable over time. 
Earlier Mars orbiters have seen the auroras but Hope, hovering at a high-altitude orbit that ranges from 12,400 miles to 27,000 miles above the Martian surface, can take in a global view of the night side of the planet. 
Curiously, taking these images weren’t even part of Hope’s mission brief. Hope is, in fact, seeking to better understand the Martian atmosphere’s dynamics near its surface and how it affects the depletion of the atmosphere into space. 
However, prior to the probe’s launch, scientists discovered that the ultraviolet spectrometer integrated to measure oxygen and hydrogen volumes in the higher atmosphere may be able to gain a glimpse of these auroras as well. 
“Our guess was, we would see something, but we weren’t sure how often it was going to be. What’s really fantastic is that we basically saw it right away, and with such clarity. It was unambiguous,” said Dr Justin Deighan, a researcher at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, assisting the UAE on the Hope mission.

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