NASA MAVEN spacecraft discovers layers and rifts in Mars' ionosphere

NASA has had the MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars for a long time now studying the Red Planet in detail. NASA reports that MAVEN has discovered "layers" and "rifts" in the electrically charged part of the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) of Mars. This phenomenon is very common on Earth and causes unpredictable disruptions of radio communications.

Science doesn't fully understand the phenomenon because they form at altitudes that are "very difficult" to explore at Earth. The unexpected discovery of the layers and rifts on Mars allows scientists to explore and better understand the phenomena. Scientists say that on Earth the layers are so close that they can be detected by anyone with a radio, but they are still mysterious.

NASA says that anyone who's favorite radio station has ever jammed or been replaced by another station; the issue was likely caused by layers of electrically charged plasma in the upper-most region of the ionosphere. The layers form suddenly and last for several hours, acting like giant mirrors. They cause radio signals from far away to bounce over the horizon where they can interfere with local transmissions.

These layers can also cause interference with radio communications by aircraft and shipping and can blind military radar. At Earth, the layers from at an altitude of about 60 miles where the air is too thin for aircraft to fly. At the same time, the atmosphere is too thick for any satellite to orbit there. The area can only be reached by rocket, but the missions are limited to tens of minutes.

At Mars MAVEN can orbit at lower altitudes and can sample the feature directly. One of the instruments on the satellite recently detected unexpected and sudden spikes in the abundance of plasma as MAVEN flew through the atmosphere. So far MAVEN has discovered that the layers also have "mirror-opposite" rifts where plasma is less abundant. Studying the layers on Mars will help scientists learn about the phenomena on Earth.