June 17, 2024

Aurora is Across the Solar System, say Scientists

The night sky across the solar system could be full of colour. From data received from a joint European-Japanese spacecraft on its way to Mercury, scientists believe that an aurora is present on the tiny planet.

It therefore follows that aurora – spectacular displays of greens, reds and yellows often seen at Earth’s highest latitudes – may be present in some form throughout the solar system.

Aurorae are the result of charged particles – electrons, protons or ions – being accelerated along the planet’s magnetic field lines.

The evidence for an aurora on Mercury comes from the flight of the BepiColumbo spacecraft, which is on its way to study the planet, but is making several flights to slow down enough to enter orbit around it in 2026.

‘Southern Lights’ on Mercury

In paper published today i Nature Communication A paper presents data suggesting that the “Southern Lights” are found around the south pole of Mercury.

The evidence comes from a flyby on October 1, 2021, during which BepiColumbo sent back images, but also took readings of Mercury’s magnetosphere – the region around the planet dominated by the planet’s magnetic field.

It looked something like this:

Magnetic Appeal

The aurorae of Mercury’s southern magnetosphere are similar to those seen on Earth and Mars, the paper says. Its magnetosphere is known to change according to the strength of the solar wind – a stream of charged particles from the sun – just as it does around Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus.

BepiColumbo found direct evidence of “X-ray aurorae,” energetic electrons being accelerated in the tail of Mercury’s magnetosphere on the nightside and quickly disappearing toward the day to appear as aurora.

The authors suggest that it is therefore likely a universal mechanism observed throughout the solar system.

Aurora on Another Planet

Photos of Aurorae shining in ultraviolet light Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, . They are also found on Mars and on the side of the night Venus as bright and diffuse patches—despite the fact that neither planet has a magnetic field.

BepiColumbo, launched in 2018, are two spacecraft carrying two orbiters – ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO).

The MPO will mainly study the surface and composition of Mercury while the MMO will focus on Mercury’s magnetic environment and the chemical composition of its thin exosphere. The orbiters will simultaneously study how the solar wind affects the planet’s exosphere and surface.

Do you wish a clear sky and wide eyes.

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