NASA's ongoing mission on Mars has made a surprising discovery that scientist believe can help explain the disruptive phenomena that regularly happens on Earth. This phenomenon is known to interfere with radio communications on Earth.
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) was launched in 2013 with the main mission of observing the atmosphere of the Red Planet. The spacecraft studies the planet from its orbit.
Disruptions Caused By Plasma
Recently, MAVEN stumbled across rifts and layers in Mars' ionosphere, the upper part of the planet's atmosphere that is electrically charged. According to NASA, these features are also present in Earth's ionosphere. These layers exist in the form of electrically charged gas known as plasma.
The plasma can act as giant mirrors in the sky, causing radio signals to bounce off and cause transmission disruptions. These layers of plasma are the primary reasons why radio stations often get jammed and suddenly get replaced by a different station. It can also disrupt the radio communications of aircraft and ships.
"The layers are so close above all our heads at Earth and can be detected by anyone with a radio, but they are still quite mysterious," Glyn Collinson of NASA explained in a statement. "Who would have thought one of the best ways to understand them is to launch a satellite 300 million miles to Mars."
Studying The Ionosphere
On Earth, studying plasma in the ionosphere is challenging because it exists in a region where the air is too thin to reach by aircraft. It also can't be reached by satellites. Currently, the only way to study them is by using rockets. Unfortunately, these can only last for about ten minutes in the ionosphere before falling back to Earth.
Mars, on the other hand, has a different atmospheric condition. Coupled with MAVEN's ability to orbit at lower altitudes, this allowed NASA with a unique opportunity to study the disruptive phenomenon on a different planet. Recent observations by the spacecraft revealed spikes in the level of layers or plasma in the ionosphere. Joe Grebowsky, the former project scientist for MAVEN, said that the spacecraft's discovery would provide more detailed information regarding the nature of the plasma layers on both Mars and Earth.
"The low altitudes observable by MAVEN will fill in a great gap in our understanding of this region on both Mars and Earth, with really significant discoveries to be had," he stated.