NASA’s Curiosity Rover Just Witnessed The Most Intense Solar Storm Ever Recorded On Mars

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While Elon Musk pushes forward with plans for humans to one day inhabit Mars, NASA scientists are busy researching what those future inhabitants may incur during massive solar storms reaching the Red Planet. Over the last month, NASA’s Mars rovers and orbiters have experienced a series of massive solar flares and coronal mass ejections, providing researchers with a front-row seat to study how much radiation exposure the first astronauts on Mars might encounter.

NASA reported that the biggest event occurred on May 20, 2024, when a solar flare, estimated to be an X-12, sent out X-rays and gamma rays toward Mars. A subsequent coronal mass ejection followed, sending charged particles aimed at the Red Planet. The X-rays and gamma rays reached Mars first, followed soon after by the charged particles. The entire event only took tens of minutes to reach Mars.

Perhaps more interesting for future astronauts, if one had been on Mars at the time of the intense X-rays, gamma rays, and charged particles hit, they would have received a radiation dose of 8,100 micrograys. To put that into perspective, it would have equaled 30 chest X-rays here on Earth. NASA added that while that amount of radiation exposure is not deadly, it was the biggest surge measured by Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, since its landing 12 years ago.
Providing insight into how future inhabitants of Mars could avoid such exposure, RAD’s principal investigator, Don Hassler remarked, “Cliffsides or lava tubes would provide additional shielding for an astronaut from such an event. In Mars orbit or deep space, the dose rate would be significantly more.” Hassler added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this active region on the Sun continues to erupt, meaning even more solar storms at both Earth and Mars over the coming weeks.”

During the epic event, so much energy hit the surface that black-and-white images from Curiosity’s navigation cameras “danced with snow.” In a similar fashion, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter’s star camera was overtaken with energy from solar particles, causing it to momentarily stop working. Fortunately, Odyssey has other means of orienting itself, and recovered the camera within an hour.

It was also not Odyssey’s first encounter with a strong solar event. In 2003, the orbiter experienced a solar flare that was estimated to be an X45, which ultimately fried the orbiter’s radiation detector, which NASA says was designed to survive such an event.

NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) also detected auroras during the event, such as those seen on Earth. “This was the largest solar energetic particle event that MAVEN has ever seen,” remarked MAVEN Space Weather Lead, Christina Lee of the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. “There have been several solar events in past weeks, so we were seeing wave after wave of particles hitting Mars.”

While the data being collected will be vital for future manned missions to the Red Planet, NASA says it is also helpful for other critical missions, such as Voyager, Parker Solar Probe, and the upcoming ESCAPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) mission. ESCAPADES has a targeted launch date in late 2024, and will observe space weather from a unique dual perspective that is more detailed than MAVEN can provide alone.