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Sudden and Rare Change in Mars' Atmosphere Raises Possibility of Similar Occurrence on Earth, Scientists Say

Mars' Atmosphere Tripled in Rare Interaction With Sun
Source: MEGA

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover, using its Mastcam-Z camera system, captured this view of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

Jan. 6 2024, Published 9:09 a.m. ET

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Nearly one year ago, Mars' magnetic shield and atmosphere swelled to three times its usual size, raising the possibility that a similar phenomenon could occur on Earth in the near future, according to scientists.

Recently uncovered by scientists, this rare occurrence was attributed to a gap or void in the charged particles constituting the solar wind emanating from the sun. Similar expansions have been observed on Earth before and may happen again soon, according to LiveScience.com.

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On Dec. 26, 2022, NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) Orbiter, which has been monitoring the Red Planet's upper atmosphere since 2014, documented the extraordinary outward expansion of Mars' atmosphere. The expansion, spanning "thousands of miles," was a significant revelation, researchers noted.

MAVEN stands out as the sole asset capable of observing both solar activity and the Martian atmosphere concurrently, enabling the detection of such unique occurances.

Jasper Halekas, a professor at the University of Iowa and the lead author of a new study on the event, expressed his initial disbelief at the data, emphasizing the richness of findings during this time period.

Mars, like all planets in our solar system, experiences a constant bombardment of solar wind. The December 2022 event involved faster-moving solar wind overtaking its slower counterpart, causing compression and creating a void in Mars' atmosphere.

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Consequently, the solar wind's dramatic decrease by a factor of 100 led to Mars' magnetosphere and ionosphere expanding over triple their normal size, fundamentally altering the planet's characteristics.

As a result of the solar wind drop, Mars' magnetosphere and ionosphere underwent significant changes, transitioning from magnetized to unmagnetized. Simultaneously, the solar wind and magnetosphere exhibited an unusually electromagnetic calmness.

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Scientists view these transformations as valuable insights into understanding the physics governing atmospheric and water loss on Mars.

Halekas remarked, "We are really getting to see how Mars responds when the solar wind is effectively removed," adding that it would make for an exceptional study scenario if Mars was orbiting a less 'windy' star.

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