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NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Spots Martian Aurora, Unexplained Dust Cloud

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NASA's most recent Mars spacecraft, MAVEN, has logged some early surprises in its year-long primary mission, including a temporary Northern hemisphere auroral display and a light dust cloud resident in the upper atmosphere.

The ultraviolet glow of the aurora was observed across the red planet's northern latitudes over five days in late December.

As with the northern and southern lights observed at the poles of the Earth, the source of the Martian auroral display is attributed to energetic electrons emitted by the sun.

Without the protective global magnetic field it once had, those energetic particles penetrate much deeper into the Martian atmosphere.

"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, a member of the MAVEN Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph team, in a NASA statement that accompanied a presentation March 18 at the 46th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, a Houston suburb.

Launched in late November 2013, MAVEN maneuvered into orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2014 to investigate the forces responsible for a diminished Martian atmosphere. The changes accompanied an apparent transition of the Martian environment from warm, wet and potentially suitable for biological activity to a now cold, dry realm.

Another MAVEN sensor, the Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument, observed the mysterious dust cloud soon after the spacecraft achieved orbit. The tenuous cloud extends from 93 to 190 miles altitude. Potential sources include dust rising from the lower atmosphere; the moons Phobos and Deimos, or particles carried by the solar wind.

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

There are also no apparent explanations for the cloud from the other sources.

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