Article image

Mars missions prepare for intense solar storms on the Red Planet

As the Sun enters a period of peak activity known as solar maximum, scientists are gearing up to study how solar storms could impact future space exploration, particularly on Mars.

According to Shannon Curry, principal investigator for NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter, this rare opportunity will provide valuable insights into the effects of solar radiation on the Red Planet.

Understanding solar storms and their impact on Mars

Solar maximum, which occurs roughly every 11 years, is a time when the Sun is especially prone to throwing fiery tantrums in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These events launch radiation deep into space, and when a series of them erupts, it’s called a solar storm.

While Earth’s magnetic field largely shields our home planet from the effects of these storms, Mars is more vulnerable due to the absence of a global magnetic field.

Curry, whose research is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, expressed her desire to witness a large solar event on Mars this year.

“For humans and assets on the Martian surface, we don’t have a solid handle on what the effect is from radiation during solar activity,” Curry said. “I’d actually love to see the ‘big one’ at Mars this year — a large event that we can study to understand solar radiation better before astronauts go to Mars.”

MAVEN and Curiosity are NASA’s dynamic duo

To study the impact of solar activity on Mars, NASA relies on two spacecraft: the MAVEN orbiter and the Curiosity rover. MAVEN observes radiation, solar particles, and more from high above Mars, while Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) measures the radiation that reaches the planet’s surface.

Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, explained the importance of studying both the quantity and energy of solar particles.

“You can have a million particles with low energy or 10 particles with extremely high energy,” Hassler said. “While MAVEN’s instruments are more sensitive to lower-energy ones, RAD is the only instrument capable of seeing the high-energy ones that make it through the atmosphere to the surface, where astronauts would be.”

When MAVEN detects a big solar flare, the orbiter’s team alerts the Curiosity team so they can watch for changes in RAD’s data.

The two missions can even assemble a time series measuring changes down to the half-second as particles arrive at the Martian atmosphere, interact with it, and eventually strike the surface.

Protecting spacecraft and astronauts

MAVEN also leads an early warning system that lets other Mars spacecraft teams know when radiation levels begin to rise.

This heads-up enables missions to turn off instruments that could be vulnerable to solar flares, which can interfere with electronics and radio communication.

Beyond helping to keep astronauts and spacecraft safe, studying solar maximum could also lend insight into why Mars changed from being a warm, wet Earth-like world billions of years ago to the freezing desert it is today.

Solar storms and the mystery of Mars’ lost water

Scientists are particularly interested in studying the potential connection between global dust storms and the loss of water on Mars.

Some researchers theorize that during solar storms, global dust storms could help eject water vapor high into the atmosphere, where it gets stripped away.

If a global dust storm were to occur at the same time as a solar storm, it would provide an opportunity to test this theory.

However, global dust storms are rare occurrences, and scientists are aware that the chances of this happening during the current solar maximum are slim.

Future of Mars exploration and solar storm protection

As NASA prepares for future human missions to Mars, understanding the effects of solar radiation on the planet is crucial.

The data collected by MAVEN and Curiosity during this solar maximum will help space agencies determine the level of radiation protection astronauts will require on the Red Planet.

With the Sun at its most active and Mars at its closest point to our star, the coming months will be an exciting time for scientists studying the Red Planet.

The insights gained from this rare opportunity could not only help protect future astronauts but also shed light on the mysterious history of Mars and its once-abundant water.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day