Solar Flare Hits Mars, Causing Radiation Spike

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 12, 2024 16:30
Solar Flare Hits Mars, Causing Radiation Spike

A recent powerful solar flare, the strongest in nearly two decades, has had significant impacts on Mars, causing widespread radiation on the Martian surface.

Solar Flare Details

On May 20, 2024, sunspot AR 3664 unleashed a massive X-class solar flare, sending a barrage of gamma rays and X-rays towards Mars at the speed of light. This event was followed by a slower-moving coronal mass ejection (CME) that released a stream of charged particles.

The solar flare was the strongest since September 2005, with its effects being detected across the solar system from Mercury to Mars. The flare's intensity was so significant that it was capable of causing notable physical changes on planetary surfaces and atmospheres.

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Dr. Miho Janvier, a solar physicist at the European Space Agency (ESA), noted the extensive reach of the flare: "The reason why the X-class flare that happened on the other side of the Sun is really interesting is because it's associated with particles that were on the path of BepiColombo as well as Mars Express." The event underscores the interconnected nature of solar phenomena and their widespread influence throughout our solar system.

Impact on Mars

The radiation from the solar flare caused a significant increase in the radiation levels detected on Mars. The spike in radiation was substantial, equivalent to undergoing about 30 chest X-rays simultaneously. This sudden increase in radiation is not immediately fatal but poses long-term health risks, particularly for future astronauts on Mars who might be exposed to such high doses periodically.

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"This was the largest solar energetic particle event that MAVEN has ever seen," said Christina Lee of the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. "There have been several solar events in the past weeks, so we were seeing wave after wave of particles hitting Mars." The high-energy particles striking the Martian atmosphere demonstrated the planet's vulnerability due to its lack of a global magnetic field and thin atmosphere, which offer little protection from solar radiation.

Effects on Spacecraft and Rovers

The intense radiation from the solar flare also impacted spacecraft orbiting Mars. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft's star camera, essential for orientation, was knocked out for about an hour due to the high-energy solar particles. Although it recovered, the incident highlighted the vulnerability of spacecraft to solar radiation.

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MAVEN, another Mars-orbiting spacecraft, recorded the event’s effects from above, providing critical data on how solar particles penetrate the Martian atmosphere. Unlike Earth, which has a strong magnetic field and thick atmosphere to protect it, Mars lacks a global magnetic field and has a thin atmosphere, making it more susceptible to solar radiation. MAVEN's observations are crucial for understanding the planet's environment and planning for future manned missions.

Increasing Solar Activity and Its Implications

This solar event is part of the Sun's increasing activity as it approaches the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, expected around July 2025. Solar flares and CMEs are expected to become more frequent and intense, affecting not only Earth but also other planets in the solar system. The increased solar activity poses challenges for both robotic and human explorers, as high radiation levels can damage electronics, impair communication, and pose serious health risks.

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The impact on Mars highlights the challenges of future human exploration and colonization of the Red Planet. Without a protective magnetic field, astronauts on Mars will need to find ways to shield themselves from harmful solar radiation. Sheltering in caves or using other natural formations on Mars might be necessary for long-term survival. The concept of using Martian lava tubes as protective shelters has been gaining traction, as these natural formations could provide substantial shielding from solar radiation.

"This event is a stark reminder of the dangers posed by solar activity," said Dr. Miho Janvier. "Understanding these events and how they affect different parts of the solar system is crucial for the safety of future space missions." The data collected from this solar event will inform future mission designs, ensuring better protection for both human and robotic explorers.

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