Mars Express made the first ever detection of martian auroras in 2004, soon after the spacecraft arrived at the Red Planet.
On Earth, auroras are spectacular, colourful displays that are regularly seen in the night sky above the polar regions. On our planet, as well as on the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, they occur where the planetary magnetic field lines approach the surface near the poles. The emissions of light are produced by charged particles (electrons, protons or ions) in the solar wind travelling down the field lines and colliding with gaseous molecules or atoms in the upper atmosphere. Mars no longer has have a global magnetic field but residual spots of magnetism are left in its crust, remnants of an old magnetic field. Mars Express detected localized light emissions in the upper atmosphere over these areas. Over the 15 years of the mission, Mars Express has been providing more and more details of the auroras at Mars, which seem to be unique in the Solar System.
ESA has demonstrated expertise in studying Mars from orbit, now we are looking to secure a safe landing, to rove across the surface and to drill underground to search for evidence of life. Our orbiters are already in place to provide data relay services for surface missions. The next logical step is to bring samples back to Earth, to provide access to Mars for scientists globally, and to better prepare for future human exploration of the Red Planet.
This set of infographics highlight’s ESA’s contribution to Mars exploration as we ramp up to the launch of our second ExoMars mission, and look beyond to completing a Mars Sample Return mission.