Monday, June 10, 2024

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Records Major May 2024 Solar Storm | NASA/JPL

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Records Major May 2024 Solar Storm | NASA/JPL

In addition to producing auroras, a recent extreme storm provided more detail on how much radiation future astronauts could encounter on the Red Planet.

Mars scientists have been anticipating epic solar storms ever since the Sun entered a period of peak activity earlier this year called solar maximum. Over the past month, NASA’s Mars rovers and orbiters have provided researchers with front-row seats to a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that have reached Mars—even causing Martian auroras at times.

This science bonanza has offered an unprecedented opportunity to study how such events unfold in deep space, as well as how much radiation exposure the first astronauts on Mars could encounter.

The biggest event occurred on May 20, 2024, with a solar flare later estimated to be an X12—X-class solar flares are the strongest of several types—based on data from the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. The flare sent out X-rays and gamma rays toward the Red Planet, while a subsequent coronal mass ejection launched charged particles. Moving at the speed of light, the X-rays and gamma rays from the flare arrived first, while the charged particles trailed slightly behind, reaching Mars in just tens of minutes.

The unfolding space weather was closely tracked by analysts at the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It flagged the possibility of incoming charged particles following the coronal mass ejection.

If astronauts had been standing next to NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at the time, they would have received a radiation dose of 8,100 micrograys — equivalent to 30 chest X-rays. While not deadly, it was the biggest surge measured by Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, since the rover landed 12 years ago.

RAD’s data will help scientists plan for the highest level of radiation exposure that might be encountered by astronauts. They would need to use the Martian landscape for protection.

“Cliffsides or lava tubes would provide additional shielding for an astronaut from such an event. In Mars orbit or deep space, the dose rate would be significantly more,” said RAD’s principal investigator, Don Hassler of Southwest Research Institute’s Solar System Science and Exploration Division in Boulder, Colorado. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this active region on the Sun continues to erupt, meaning even more solar storms at both Earth and Mars over the coming weeks.”

During the May 20 event, so much energy from the storm struck the surface that black-and-white images from Curiosity’s navigation cameras danced with “snow”—white streaks and specks caused by charged particles hitting the cameras.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California leads the Curiosity mission.

For more about Curiosity, visit:

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Release Date: June 10, 2024

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