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Noopur Bhandiwad, Pune

A team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism (IIG) have identified and reported the existence of solitary waves or distinct electric field fluctuations in the Martian magnetosphere. 

Scientists from IIG captured the data with the help of Langmuir Probe and Waves Instrument on Nasa’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which was launched by NASA in November 2013. These findings were published in the Astrophysical Journal, where researchers studied 450 solitary wave pulses observed by the MAVEN spacecraft back in February 2015. 

What are Solitary Waves? 

Earth is a giant entity, which is surrounded by a magnetic field. The field acts as a shield, protecting earth from hazardous and high-speed charged particles which are transmitted from the sun in the form of solar winds.

Unlike earth however, Mars does not have a magnetic field. This allows high-speed solar wind to directly impact Mars’s atmosphere. There have been theories to suggest that even with a thin magnetosphere, solitary waves interacting with the martian atmosphere is a possibility. There has been no evidence to prove the same, until this finding was published. 

What does the data say? 

The research paper explains that the solitary wave pulses vary between 1 and 25 mV m-1 and 0.2 – 1.7 ms, respectively. These pulses are dominantly seen in the dawn (5-6 LT) and afternoon-dusk (15-18 LT) sectors at an altitude of 1000-3500 km. 

There is a need to further investigate why these wave occurrences are dominant during particular times of the day. 

The discovery of these solitary waves  paves way for more research as such waves are known to be responsible for particle energization, plasma loss, transport and other processes. 

It is more important than ever to explore particle dynamics in the Martian atmosphere and understand whether the waves are a factor behind the loss of atmospheric ions on the neighboring planet. This would provide deep insights into the habitability of Mars as well.

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