Mars Express Captures Mars’ Moving Bow Shock

Every planet in our Solar System interacts with the stream of energetic particles coming from our Sun. Often referred to as “solar wind”, these particles consist mainly of electrons, protons and alpha particles that are constantly making their way towards interstellar space. Where this stream comes into contact with a planet’s magnetosphere or atmosphere, it forms a region around them known as a “bow shock”.

These regions form in front of the planet, slowing and diverting solar wind as it moves past – much like how water is diverted around a boat. In the case of Mars, it is the planet’s ionosphere that provides the conductive environment necessary for a bow shock to form. And according to a new study by a team of European scientists, Mars’ bow shock shifts as a result of changes in the planet’s atmosphere.

The study, titled “Annual Variations in the Martian Bow Shock Location as Observed by the Mars Express Mission“, appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Letters: Space Physics. Using data from the Mars Express orbiter, the science team sought to investigate how and why the bow shock’s location varies during the course of several Martian years, and what factors are chiefly be responsible.

Diagram of Mars’ orbit and changes to its bow shock between perihelion and aphelion. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

For many decades, astronomers have been aware that bow shocks form upstream of a planet, where interaction between solar wind and the planet causes energetic particles to slow down and gradually be diverted. Where the solar wind meets the planet’s magnetosphere or atmosphere, a sharp boundary line is formed, which them extends around the planet in a widening arc.

This is where the term bow shock comes from, owing to its distinctive shape. In the case of Mars, which does not have a global magnetic field and a rather thin atmosphere to boot (less than 1% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level), it is the electrically-charged region of the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) that is responsible for creating the bow shock around the planet.

At the same time, Mars relatively small size, mass and gravity allows for the formation of an extended atmosphere (i.e. an exosphere). In this portion of Mars’ atmosphere, gaseous atoms and molecules escape into space and interact directly with solar wind. Over the years, this extended atmosphere and Mars’ bow shock have been observed by multiple orbiter missions, which have detected variations in the latter’s boundary.

This is believed to be caused by multiple factors, not the least of which is distance. Because Mars has an relatively eccentric orbit (0.0934 compared to Earth’s 0.0167), its distance from the Sun varies quite a bit – going from 206.7 million km (128.437 million mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154.8457 million mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion.

Illustration showing how Mars and Earth interact with solar wind. Credit: NASA

When the planet is closer, the dynamic pressure of the solar wind against its atmosphere increases. However, this change in distance also coincides with increases in the amount of incoming extreme ultraviolet (EUV) solar radiation. As a result, the rate at which ions and electrons (aka. plasma) are produced in the upper atmosphere increases, causing increased thermal pressure that counteracts the incoming solar wind.

Newly-created ions within the extended atmosphere are also picked up and accelerated by the electromagnetic fields being carried by the solar wind. This has the effect of slowing it down and causing Mars’ bowshock to shift its position. All of this has been known to happen over the course of a single Martian year – which is equivalent to 686.971 Earth days or 668.5991 Martian days (sols).

However, how it behaves over longer periods of time is a question that was previously unanswered. As such, the team of European scientists consulted data obtained by the Mars Express mission over a five year period. This data was taken by the Analyser of Space Plasma and EneRgetic Atoms (ASPERA-3) Electron Spectrometer (ELS), which the team used to examine a total of 11,861 bow shock crossings.

What they found was that, on average, the bow shock is closer to Mars when it is near aphelion (8102 km), and further away at perihelion (8984 km). This works out to a variation of about 11% during the Martian year, which is pretty consistent with its eccentricity. However, the team wanted to see which (if any) of the previously-studied mechanisms was chiefly responsible for this change.

The moving Martian bow shock. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Towards this end, the team considered variations in solar wind density, the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field, and solar irradiation as primary causes – are all of which decline as the planet gets farther away from the Sun. However, what they found was that the bow shock’s location appeared more sensitive to variations in the Sun’s output of extreme UV radiation rather than to variations in solar wind itself.

The variations in bow shock distance also appeared to be related to the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere. This increases as Mars approaches perihelion, causing the atmosphere to absorb more solar radiation and heat up. Much like how increased levels of EUV leads to an increased amount of plasma in the ionosphere and exosphere, increased amounts of dust appear to act as a buffer against solar wind.

As Benjamin Hall, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK and the lead author of the paper, said in an ESA press release:

“Dust storms have been previously shown to interact with the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars, so there may be an indirect coupling between the dust storms and bow shock location… However, we do not draw any further conclusions on how the dust storms could directly impact the location of the Martian bow shock and leave such an investigation to a future study.”

In the end, Hall and his team could not single out any one factor when addressing why Mars’ bow shock shifts over longer periods of time. “It seems likely that no single mechanism can explain our observations, but rather a combined effect of all of them,” he said. “At this point none of them can be excluded.”

Looking ahead, Hall and his colleagues hope that future missions will help shed additional light on the mechanisms behind Mars shifting bowshock. As Hall indicated, this will likely involve “”joint investigations by ESA’s Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter, and NASA’s MAVEN mission. Early data from MAVEN seems to confirm the trends that we discovered.”

While this is not the first analysis that sought to understand how Mars’ atmosphere interacts with solar wind, this particular analysis was based on data obtained over a much longer period of time than any previously study. In the end, the multiple missions that are currently studying Mars are revealing much about the atmospheric dynamics of this planet. A planet which, unlike Earth, has a very weak magnetic field.

What we learn in the process will go a long way towards ensuring that future exploration missions to Mars and other planets that have weak magnetic fields (like Venus and Mercury) are safe and effective. It might even assist us with the creation of permanent bases on these worlds someday!

Further Reading: ESA, Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?

Mars and Earth have quite a few things in common. Both are terrestrial planets, both are located within the Sun’s habitable zone, both have polar ice caps, similarly tilted axes, and similar variations in temperature. And according to some of the latest scientific data obtained by rovers and atmospheric probes, it is now known that Mars once had a dense atmosphere and was covered with warm, flowing water.

But when it comes to things like the length of a year, and the length of seasons, Mars and Earth are quite different. Compared to Earth, a year on Mars lasts almost twice as long – 686.98 Earth days. This is due to the fact that Mars is significantly farther from the Sun and its orbital period (the time it takes to orbit the Sun) is significantly greater than that of Earth’s.

Orbital Period:

Mars average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 227,939,200 km (141,634,852.46 mi) which is roughly one and half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1.52 AU). Compared to Earth, its orbit is also rather eccentric (0.0934 vs. 0.0167), ranging from 206.7 million km (128,437,425.435 mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154,845,701 mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, and with an orbital speed of 24.077 km/s, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a orbit around the Sun.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

This eccentricity is one of the most pronounced in the Solar System, with only Mercury having a greater one (0.205). However, this wasn’t always the case. Roughly 1.35 million years ago, Mars had an eccentricity of just 0.002, making its orbit nearly circular. It reached a minimum eccentricity of 0.079 some 19,000 years ago, and will peak at about 0.105 in about 24,000 years from now.

But for the last 35,000 years, the orbit of Mars has been getting slightly more eccentric because of the gravitational effects of the other planets. The closest distance between Earth and Mars will continue to mildly decrease for the next 25,000 years. And in about 1,000,000 years from now, its eccentricity will once again be close to what it is now – with an estimated eccentricity of 0.01.

Earth Days vs. Martian “Sols”:

Whereas a year on Mars is significantly longer than a year on Earth, the difference between an day on Earth and a Martian day (aka. “Sol”) is not significant. For starters, Mars takes 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis (aka. a sidereal day), where Earth takes just slightly less (23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds).

On the other hand, it takes 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds for the Sun to appear in the same spot in the sky above Mars (aka. a solar day), compared to the 24 hour solar day we experience here on Earth. This means that, based on the length of a Martian day, a Martian year works out to 668.5991 Sols.

The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun's movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU
The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun’s movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU

Seasonal Variations:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which means it will periodically receive less in the way of the Sun’s radiance during at one time of the year than another. This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature.

While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This works out to a variation in average surface temperature that is quite similar to Earth’s – a difference of 178 °C (320.4 °F) versus 145.9 °C (262.5 °F). This high in temperatures is also what allows for liquid water to still flow (albeit intermittently) on the surface of Mars.

In addition, Mars’ eccentricity means that it travels more slowly in its orbit when it is further from the Sun, and more quickly when it is closer (as stated in Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion). Mars’ aphelion coincides with Spring in its northern hemisphere, which makes it the longest season on the planet – lasting roughly 7 Earth months. Summer is second longest, lasting six months, while Fall and Winter last 5.3 and just over 4 months, respectively.

Artist's impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com
Artist’s impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com

In the south, the length of the seasons is only slightly different. Mars is near perihelion when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north, and near aphelion when it is winter in the southern hemisphere and summer in the north. As a result, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are more extreme and the seasons in the northern are milder. The summer temperatures in the south can be up to 30 K (30 °C; 54 °F) warmer than the equivalent summer temperatures in the north.

Weather Patterns:

These seasonal variations allow Mars to experience some extremes in weather. Most notably, Mars has the largest dust storms in the Solar System. These can vary from a storm over a small area to gigantic storms (thousands of km in diameter) that cover the entire planet and obscure the surface from view. They tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and have been shown to increase the global temperature.

The first mission to notice this was the Mariner 9 orbiter, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, leading to Mars’ experiencing its own greenhouse effect.

Given the differences in seasons and day length, one is left to wonder if a standard Martian calendar could ever be developed. In truth, it could, but it would be a bit of a challenge. For one, a Martian calendar would have to account for Mars’ peculiar astronomical cycles, and our own non-astronomical cycles like the 7-day week work with them.

Another consideration in designing a calendar is accounting for the fractional number of days in a year. Earth’s year is 365.24219 days long, and so calendar years contain either 365 or 366 days accordingly. Such a formula would need to be developed to account for the 668.5921-sol Martian year. All of this will certainly become an issue as human beings become more and more committed to exploring (and perhaps colonizing) the Red Planet.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Mars.

Astronomy Cast also has several interesting episodes on the subject. Like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.