Astronomers Mystified by Eerie Phenomenon on Mars: Ultraviolet “Nightglow” Spreads Across the Planet’s Sky Every Night

Martian Nightglow Atmosphere South Pole

This is an image of the ultraviolet “nightglow” in the Martian atmosphere over the south pole. Green and white false colors represent the intensity of ultraviolet light, with white being the brightest. The nightglow was measured at about 70 kilometers (approximately 40 miles) altitude by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph instrument on NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. A simulated view of the Mars globe is added digitally for context, and the faint white area in the center of the image is the polar ice cap. The image shows an unexpectedly bright glowing spiral in Mars’ nightside atmosphere. The cause of the spiral pattern is unknown. Credit: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

Every night on Mars, when the sun sets and temperatures fall to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit and below, an eerie phenomenon spreads across much of the planet’s sky: a soft glow created by chemical reactions occurring tens of miles above the surface.

An astronaut standing on Mars couldn’t see this “nightglow”—it shows up only as ultraviolet light. But it may one day help scientists to better predict the churn of Mars’ surprisingly complex atmosphere.


Mars’ nightside atmosphere glows and pulsates in this data animation from MAVEN spacecraft observations. Green-to-white false color shows the enhanced brightenings on Mars’ ultraviolet “nightglow” measured by MAVEN’s Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph at about 70 kilometers (approximately 40 miles) altitude. A simulated view of the Mars globe is added digitally for context, with ice caps visible at the poles. Three nightglow brightenings occur over one Mars rotation, the first much brighter than the other two. All three brightenings occur shortly after sunset, appearing on the left of this view of the night side of the planet. The pulsations are caused by downwards winds which enhance the chemical reaction creating nitric oxide which causes the glow. Months of data were averaged to identify these patterns, indicating they repeat nightly. Credit: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

“If we’re going to send people to Mars, we better understand what’s going on in the atmosphere,” said Zachariah Milby, a professional research assistant at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.

In a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, Milby and his colleagues set their sights on understanding the phenomenon. They drew on data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft to map the planet’s nightglow in greater detail than ever before. 

The team’s findings show how this light display ebbs and flows over Mars’ seasons. The group also discovered something unusual: an unexpectedly bright spot that appears in the planet’s atmosphere just above its equator. 

Mars, in other words, still has a few surprises in store for scientists, said LASP’s Nick Schneider, lead author of the new study. 

“The behavior of the Martian atmosphere is every bit as complicated and insightful as that of Earth’s atmosphere,” said Schneider, also a professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences.

Full picture

MAVEN wasn’t the first spacecraft to spot the nightglow on Mars, a phenomenon that resembles similar glows seen on Earth and Venus. That honor belongs to the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Mission, which entered orbit around Mars in 2003.

But the mission was the first to capture the nightglow for what it is—a dynamic and constantly evolving phenomenon.

“It wasn’t until MAVEN came along in 2014 that we could actually snap this full picture five times a day as the planet rotates,” Schneider said.

Mars Glowing Nightside Atmosphere

The diagram explains the cause of Mars’ glowing nightside atmosphere. On Mars’ dayside, molecules are torn apart by energetic solar photons. Global circulation patterns carry the atomic fragments to the nightside, where downward winds increase the reaction rate for the atoms to reform molecules. The downwards winds occur near the poles at some seasons and in the equatorial regions at others. The new molecules hold extra energy which they emit as ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

In the new study, researchers used MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS)—an instrument designed and built at LASP—to snap images of Mars from a distance of 3,700 miles. Those far-flung recordings allowed the team to trace the path of nightglow as it moved across the entire planet. 

Milby led the data analysis for the research while he was still an undergraduate student at CU Boulder.

He explained that the eerie aura appears when air currents high in Mars’ atmosphere plunge to about 40 miles above the planet’s surface. When that happens, lone nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the atmosphere combine to form molecules of nitric oxide, giving off small bursts of ultraviolet light in the process.  

Put differently, when its atmosphere drops, Mars shines.

“It’s a great tracer for dynamics between the layers of the atmosphere,” Milby said.

Bright spots

Milby added that, like on Earth, those dynamics can shift with the seasons. The MAVEN team found, for example, that Mars’ nightglow seems to be brightest at the height of the planet’s northern and southern winters when hotter currents rush away from the equator and toward Mars’ poles.

Milby also found something he wasn’t expecting in the data: an extra-bright blob of nightglow that appeared and disappeared from almost exactly above 0 degrees longitude and 0 degrees latitude on Mars.

“We spent weeks thinking there was a bug in our code somewhere,” Milby said. 

Mars Ultraviolet Nightglow

This is an image of the ultraviolet “nightglow” in the Martian atmosphere. Green and white false colors represent the intensity of ultraviolet light, with white being the brightest. The nightglow was measured at about 70 kilometers (approximately 40 miles) altitude by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph instrument on NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. A simulated view of the Mars globe is added digitally for context. The image shows an intense brightening in Mars’ nightside atmosphere. The brightenings occur regularly after sunset on Martian evenings during fall and winter seasons, and fade by midnight. The brightening is caused by increased downwards winds which enhance the chemical reaction creating nitric oxide which causes the glow. Credit: NASA/MAVEN/Goddard Space Flight Center/CU/LASP

There wasn’t a bug. The researchers still aren’t sure why Mars is glowing so much at that unusual spot—it may have something to do with the shape of the terrain underneath. But Schneider said that observations like this can help scientists improve their computer models of how the planet’s atmosphere works.

And that could lead to something that every astronaut might use: more accurate weather reports on Mars. 

“We use supercomputers to predict weather on Earth so that you can plan for your vacation or growing crops,” Schneider said. “The same computer models can be spun up for Mars and all the other planets.”

For more on this study, read NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Observes Weird Glowing and Pulsing in Mars’ Night Sky.

Reference: “Imaging of Martian Circulation Patterns and Atmospheric Tides Through MAVEN/IUVS Nightglow Observations” by N. M. Schneider, Z. Milby, S. K. Jain, F. González‐Galindo, E. Royer, J.‐C. Gérard, A. Stiepen, J. Deighan, A. I. F. Stewart, F. Forget, F. Lefèvre and S. W. Bougher, 5 August 2020, JGR Space Physics.
DOI: 10.1029/2019JA027318

The research was funded by the MAVEN mission. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder, and NASA Goddard manages the MAVEN project.

Other coauthors on the new study included LASP researchers Emilie Royer, Justin Deighan, Sonal Jain and Ian Stewart. The study also included coauthors from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, University of Liège, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Michigan.

37 Comments on "Astronomers Mystified by Eerie Phenomenon on Mars: Ultraviolet “Nightglow” Spreads Across the Planet’s Sky Every Night"

  1. Snailmailtrucker | August 22, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Reply

    It’s is Amazing that Everything Confuses NASA and The Main Stream Scientific Community
    They have denied that any Electrical Currents exist in Space…They don’t have a Clue about ElectroMagnetic Plasma Discharge just like the Auroras here on Earth

    Watch The Thunderbolts Project Electric Universe so you can laugh at these Fools on a Daily basis

    • I’ll be kind and explain one of the principles involved.
      Scientists WANT to be puzzled. Without unsolved questions, there is no progress. The job of science is to answer these questions. It has a pretty decent track record. It’s not afraid to throw out disproved theories and adopt new ones. “Electric Universe” is pseudo-science. Publish some papers on “Electric Universe” Meantime, people can have a look at Rational Wiki’s Electric Universe de-bunking while they’re waiting for your nonsense paper.

      • “Science” is corrupt.

        At the university level, your scientific research does not get funded unless your conclusions agree with your donor, donors from big indusrtries and also including partisan government bureaucracies and politicians allied with industries like Big Pharma.

        Big Medical science is corrupt and is taking tens of thousands human lives, “Science” sweeping through the US like a Grim Reaper, as “scientists” allied with media prevent hydroxychloroquine from being used as therapy for the Chinese cornoavirus

      • You seem to be confused about the matter. Im not sure of your grade level; so I will let someone else simplify the matter for you! I do want to reflect with you and ask this question, did you just suggest to NASA a credible source that they get their information from a non credible source to any college; that they get there information from wikipedia? Thanks for the laugh, I needed that. Also, I encourage you to educate yourself and come back then read it again. You may have a different outlook on what you read about Mars, and the atmospheric cloud like that of ours on Earth!

    • Yes, I too laugh at fools on the daily! You seem to have a strong opinion on what NASA has to offer! What can you offer to solve such complex problems? How are your math skills? The complex problems also require high level math skillls to solved. Where do your math skills stand? I noticed it also appears you have completely missed the concept. If I were you, I would educate myself through school or books; you can access some free online at the library or google play books, and then comeback and read again. You might come to a different understanding. You could maybe then leave a comment and have a better controbution to make.

  2. It’s amazing these guys even have jobs no common sense at all may have book smarts but that by itself ain’t worth nothing. I say let’s go to mars we have the tech and everything we need. We just need to build it! We also no how to drill and we know how to destroy a beautiful planet. Can’t tell us that we can’t jump start and make a planet work for us.

  3. These so called experts are good for nothing people who while having a dump; come up with “theories” after theories to fool common people. What a waste of public time and money.

    • Sick of it all | August 23, 2020 at 10:11 am | Reply

      Want a waste of money? How about spending $1 trillion to upgrade a “nuclear deterrent” (ICBMs) that we’ll never use.

  4. Johnathan Peploe | August 23, 2020 at 3:22 am | Reply

    Dear Snailmailtrucker, Jonathon and Andy… Please go and find another site to leave your moronic comments, maybe look for one of the many pseudoscience sites, I think they would be more suitable to your obvious distrust of science.

  5. Johnathan Peploe, I couldn’t have said it better. Except I might add we send all 3 there so they can test their theories. Lol

  6. Frederick Thornton | August 23, 2020 at 5:06 am | Reply

    Talk about Scientism. Half assed answers creating more questions. How is the chemical reactions enhanced? Since Mara has little atmosphere what do we mean by winds?

    Everything described in the article has a electromagnetic plasma explanation. All weather is a state of plasma.

    • Ho Hum, another “electric universe” fan.
      Rational Wiki debunks EU handily. Or you can simply google “Electric Universe Debunked” and soak up some facts.

  7. Wow! What a tough crowd here, today!

  8. Indefinite Glacier | August 23, 2020 at 8:15 am | Reply

    If you guys want to criticize scientists, you should learn to write proper English. There is no way anyone will believe you have any kind of a grasp on electromagnetism, chemistry, or much of anything if you can’t even structure your sentences properly.

  9. Show us on the doll where the bad NASA scientist hurt you

  10. Earth could adjust all its telescopes to this, and correlate the large-small data, thanks for the report…

  11. Proper English has nothing to do with Science. Ok the English language is ridiculous. It doesn’t sound as it’s spelled and most intelligent people are dyslexic. I bet they could learn Latin quickly. Your insults and distrust does nothing but spin wheels in place.

  12. WhyScienceMatters | August 23, 2020 at 10:22 am | Reply

    Snailmailtracker, scientists don’t make assertions without facts. It’s called the scientific method. As for anyone like Jonathan, who is dumb enough to want to jump the gun and go to Mars before a safe set up is ready, please, go.
    We won’t miss you.

  13. Missouri astronomer | August 23, 2020 at 11:43 am | Reply

    It seems basic planetary science escapes most people. To the gentleman who stated Mars has little wind, you might need to look up Martian dust storms. The wind you claim doesn’t exist is what fuels them. Mars very much has an atmosphere, sometimes clouds form though not water clouds like we have. They also have dust devil’s, driven by high and low pressure systems in Mar’s atmosphere. Funny someone who thinks they know everything about the red planet doesn’t even know it has wind for the same reasons Earth has wind.

  14. Telescopes are in California, right? There is no marsh gas on Mars, it is methane from the piles of human dung covering the sidewalks in LA and SF, and the smoke from looters burning down Portland and Seattle, that gerts in the front of the telescope lens.

  15. Henry Braswell | August 23, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Reply

    Holy sheep shit Batman we found out where the Green Lantern lives! Baahaha

  16. David Schmaeng | August 23, 2020 at 5:01 pm | Reply

    To me it might be auroras. Simular to the earth’s Northern Lights

  17. You had me until “Fahrenheit”

  18. Some of these comments are doucebag trolls and should be banned. I can’t tolerate the incredibly low moronic IQ of these turds with their self righteous, holier than thou, mainstream media brainwashed opinions. Anything that goes against their academically funded, evolutionary inspired concepts of the currently accepted, established history & science of the world is routinely ridiculed and bashed with absolutely no grounds or evidence to back such actions. They are literally paid to be stupid. You know who you are. Eat a bullet and do humanity a favor by keeping your DNA out of the gene pool won’t you? Thanks

  19. I’m not a believer of the Electric Universe theory however I also don’t believe 100% what mainstream science tells us. As someone who has followed science since childhood and by no means any kind of expert, I’m quite aware that in the 40 plus years I’ve been reading about science, it has changed and rewritten it’s books numerous times. As seekers of knowledge we should try and keep our minds open. Many geniuses of the past were laughed at because of what were called ridiculous theory’s, until proven correct that is many posthumously. Many of the posts I read here express themselves as if they were the ones that discovered the information regarding the subject matter we are discussing. Most if not all are just parroting information they were told or read somewhere. When it changes again they will just repeat the new discoveries as if fact. My point is to just keep an open mind and save the insults for those that truly deserve them, like politicians. We all have the right to believe in what we want, even if it is foolish and if you are lucky enough to have some insight on the “truth” then feel blessed and try to share it with the “fools” that believe otherwise and you will be listened to with much more enthusiasm if you approach others with more humility. Much of the scientific community is still baffled by our Universe as a whole, so I think us novices are even less aware of what is really going on.

  20. Creating new taggz… #geophyisiStyx and #astrophysiStyx…to illustrate the principle that only when we overcome our fear of death and #crossingOver the #River_Styx will we unlock our #spiritualGifts to explore other #galacticPlanes…

  21. There are only two posible explanations, 1. Trump did it. 2.Global Warming lol

  22. rafael e reyes | August 24, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Reply

    They’re right you.they have to be safe first.
    Even I at one point had the thoughts to go to Mars but what a out the precautions.
    I say take your time and figure things out before you go.

  23. This dialogue is informative. The divide between science and anti- science believers is much greater than I would have guessed. The anti-vaxer and Qanon cults fit right in with the anti-science followers.

    Could our society be on an Interstellar style trajectory where hard science is cancelled and history books rewritten to match?

    If a Covid-19 vaccine is developed will enough people actully take it to be effective?

    Everyone seems to enjoy the fruits of hard science research, like alkaline and lion batteries. Yet, they question more esoteric items like the UV glow seen on Mars and ascribe mystical Electric Universe cult theories as an explanation, or reject the studies entirely.

    The choice is to accept science as imperfect as it is, or give up use of all items that are based on hard science research and become a modernized Luddite. Being hypocritical is a waste of time, space and air.

    KB

  24. I was sitting on my back porch and light that was supposedly have been more that came up with the Moon about a week and a half ago I took pictures of it and then I went home and sat on my back porch the light which was supposed to have been Mars seemed like it was coming close to me as I was looking at it for about 30 minutes.

    • China implemented the coronavirus because that so-called extraterrestrials are other life-forms which is not from this planet is going to invade this planet so they use their covid-19 as a defense mechanism.

  25. How can you actually determine the environment or anything about somewhere that you have never been?

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