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NASA Observes Unexpected Dust Cloud and Aurora in Mars’ Atmosphere

posted: 03/18/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
MAVEN spacecraft
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An artist's rendering of NASA's MAVEN spacecraft observing an aurora over Mars.
University of Colorado

NASA announced today that its MAVEN spacecraft unexpectedly observed a high-altitude dust cloud and an atmospheric aurora in Mars' atmosphere. The composition of the cloud is unknown and scientists aren't sure if the cloud is a permanent feature of the Red Planet's atmosphere.

So far, MAVEN's Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument is the first and only instrument to observe the dust cloud. Astronomers say that the cloud, which is denser at lower altitudes, poses no threat to spacecraft.

"If the dust originates from the atmosphere, this suggests we are missing some fundamental process in the Martian atmosphere," remarked Laila Andersson of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospherics and Space Physics.

The spacecraft's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph also observed "a bright ultraviolet auroral glow spanning Mars' northern hemisphere", NASA said in a news release. The glow is believed to have originated from the Sun's energetic particles.

"What's especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs - much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars," said Arnaud Stiepen of the University of Colorado. "The electrons producing it must be really energetic."

Click here for the full news release from NASA

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