By Beatriz Sánchez-Cano (University of Leicester)
Several instrument operations, as well as communication systems with rovers at the surface, depend on radio signals that propagate throughout the atmosphere of Mars. This is the case for two radars currently operational in Mars’ orbit, sounding the ionosphere, surface and subsurface of the planet: The Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) on board Mars Express, which operates between 0.1 and 5.5 MHz, and the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which operates at 20 MHz. However, both radars typically suffer from complete blackouts for several days (and even weeks) when solar storms hit Mars. It is thought that an increase in the electron density of the lower ionosphere below 100 km occurs, where even a small enhancement in ionization significantly increases the signal attenuation. In analogy with Earth, some works suggest that solar protons of tens of MeV can cause these absorption layers. However, at Mars, the current origin andlong duration is not known.
Sánchez-Cano et al. (2019) focused on both the MARSIS and SHARAD radar performances during a powerful solar storm that hit Mars in September 2017. The space weather event consisted of a X8.2-class flare emitted by the Active Region 12673 at the western limb of the solar disk on 10 September 2017 (Figure 1a). This was followed by solar energetic particles (ions and electrons) that arrived at Mars few hours later, as recorded by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission (see Figure 1b,c). Based on MAVEN observations and numerical simulations of energetic electron precipitation, Sánchez-Cano et al. (2019) found that high energy electrons (and not protons) were the main ionization source, creating a dense layer of ions and electrons of magnitude ~1010 m-3 at ~90 km on the Martian nightside. For frequencies between 3 and 20 MHz, the peak absorption level is found at 70 km altitude, and the layer was composed mainly of O2+, the main Martian ionosphere component. This layer attenuated radar signals continuously for 10 days, preventing the radars from receiving any HF signals from the planetary surface across a planetary scale (Figure 1d). This contrasts with the typical few hour durations that these phenomena have at Earth.
This work highlights the need for careful assessments of radar performances for future operational systems, especially during space weather events. During these events, a good characterization of the low ionosphere is necessary for radar operations (and other instruments that use HF radio links), operational planning, as well as for communications with the Martian surface in the HF range.
For more information please see the paper below:
Sánchez‐Cano, B., Blelly, P.‐L., Lester, M., Witasse, O., Cartacci, M., Orosei, R., et al ( 2019). Origin of the extended Mars radar blackout of September 2017. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 124. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JA026403
Figure 1: (a) MAVEN-EUV irradiance observations of wavelength 0.1-7 nm. (b) MAVEN-SEP ion differential flux spectra. (c) MAVEN-SEP electron differential flux spectra. (d) Each symbol denotes when MARSIS and SHARAD were in operation. Empty symbols designate the cases when the surface was observed, and filled symbols when was not observed. The exception are green diamonds that indicate the times when SHARAD observed a highly blurry surface.