The spacecraft stumbled upon 'layers' and 'rifts' in the ionosphere of Mars, which is the electrically charged part of the upper atmosphere of the red planet.
NASA’s ongoing Mars mission through its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft has made surprising discoveries that scientist believe may help understand the disruptive phenomena on Earth. The spacecraft stumbled upon ‘layers’ and ‘rifts’ in the ionosphere of Mars, which is the electrically charged part of the upper atmosphere of the red planet. These layers are close to everyone living on Earth and can be detected by anyone with a radio, as stated by NASA. This unexpected discovery by MAVEN spacecraft shows that Mars is a unique laboratory for scientists to explore and better understand this highly disruptive phenomenon.
Has your favourite radio station ever jammed or been replaced by another station? The reason could be these layers of electrically charged gas, called ‘plasma’. These layers are present in the upper-most region of the Earth’s atmosphere, also called the ionosphere. Acting like giant mirrors in the sky, these layers can last for several hours causing radio signals to interfere with local transmissions, just like how when two people try to talk over one another. The layers could also disrupt the radio communications made by aircraft and ships and can blind military radar, as reported by NASA.
These layers are formed 100 km above the Earth’s surface where the air is too thin for an aircraft to fly and too thick for any satellite to orbit. NASA’s report said that the existence of these layers have been known for about 80 years now, but little is known about what goes on inside them as no satellite can get low enough to reach the layers. However, at Mars, it is easier for these satellites to hover at a lower altitude and can sample these features directly.
The recent measurements through MAVEN’s scientific instruments revealed unexpected spikes in the abundance of plasma in Mars’ ionosphere. Joe Grebowsky, a former MAVEN project scientist at NASA, used his experience with rocket flights to recognise the spikes. The study through MAVEN’s Mars mission proves that Mars offers what Earth cannot, a place where these layers can be reliably explored.
The new discoveries through MAVEN have given NASA scientists a better understanding of the fundamental processes that underpin these layers, and future exploration of Mars will allow the scientists to build better scientific models of how these layers are formed. Perhaps someday in the future, NASA expects to gain new insights from the layers found in Mars’s ionsphere which may help them in forecasting those layers at Earth as well. This, in turn, will provide for more reliable radio communication for each one living on Earth.