TECH
19/03/2015 11:10 GMT | Updated 19/03/2015 11:59 GMT

Mars 'Christmas Lights' Aurora Spotted By NASA's Maven Spacecraft

Cloud cover might have frustrated your attempts to see the northern lights this week, but not even a couple of hundred million miles of space has stopped NASA scientists discovering a strange aurora on Mars.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft (Maven) saw the phenomenon around the Red Planet in December, after just two months in orbit around the planet.

The basic mechanics of the aurora are the same on Earth - charged particles interacting with the magnetosphere and the atmosphere - but both are weaker than on Earth, which made the December sighting unusual. The team dubbed the aurora the "Christmas lights”, saying the data was “just spectacular”.

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New Scientist reports that NASA saw the ultraviolet lights at lower altitudes and across a much wider area than usual. The team is now trying to figure our how to look more closely at the planet when the spacecraft is in its shadow — but that could prove tricky, since its instruments are not designed to look directly at the sun.

Maven also reportedly saw a dust cloud orbiting the planet, which is also pretty inexplicable as far as the space agency can tell. The spacecraft has only been in orbit since September, so chances are there will be a lot more surprises coming in the near future.