Mars lacks a planetary magnetosphere, but it does have pockets of magnetism

The Zhurong rover has been operating on the surface of Mars for more than a year since it was deployed on May 22, 2021. Before the rover suspended operations on May 20, 2022, due to the onset of winter and approaching storms seasonal sand, Zhurong managed to travel a total distance of 1,921 km (1,194 mi). During the first kilometer of this journey, the rover obtained vital data on Mars’ extremely weak magnetic fields. According to a new study by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), these readings indicate that the magnetic field is extremely weak under the rover’s landing site.

The research was led by Aimin Du, Yasong Ge and Huapei Wang, three professors of the CAS Engineering Laboratory for Deep Resources Equipment and Technology and the Institute of Geology and Geophysics (IGGCAS). They were joined by researchers from the National Astronomical Observatories, the School of Geophysics and Geomatics, the College of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the National Space Science Center, the Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering (ISSE), and several universities and research institutes . The research paper describing their findings recently appeared in the journal Nature astronomy.

The Chinese rover Zhurong on Mars
An image from China’s Zhurong rover shows spacecraft hardware in the foreground and the Martian terrain in the background. Credit: CNSA

While Mars doesn’t have an intrinsic magnetic field (also known as a magnetosphere), there is evidence that it did about four billion years ago. This evidence is recorded in the planet’s crust, which retains weak magnetic fields distributed across its surface. Orbital measurements of these fields have been conducted since Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) e Mars atmosphere and volatile evolution (MAVEN), which recorded terrestrial crustal fields with intensities up to 1,500 nanotesla (nT), but with a global average of about 200 nT.

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While studying the crust in the Elysium Planitia region, NASA’s onboard InSight fluxgate magnetometer (IFG) Intuition The mission obtained readings that were an order of magnitude stronger – about 2,000?nT. Zhurong, the first rover equipped with fluxgate magnetometers, obtained magnetic readings from 16 sites along a 1,089 m (3,570 ft) runway in the Utopia Planitia region, approximately 2,000 km (1,240 mi) northwest of the Intuition mission landing site. However, Zhurong’s two magnetometers obtained readings that indicate the exact opposite of what the Intuition obtained lander.

The results indicated a field strength of about 20 nT, an order of magnitude lower than orbit-inferred measurements. These extremely weak readings imply that the crust under Utopia Planitia may have remained unmagnetized since its formation during the Early Hesperian (about 4 billion years ago) or that it may have been demagnetized by a subsequent major impact. These findings provide a new constraint on the timeline of Mars’ magnetosphere and when it disappeared. They also shed further light on the magnetic, climatic and inner history of Mars and how they are interconnected.

Knowing how and when Mars’ magnetic field disappeared is vital to ongoing astrobiological studies of Mars. By understanding how and when it went from a hotter planet with water flowing across its surface to the extremely cold and arid place it is today, scientists hope to find out whether or not there was enough time for life to emerge on Mars. Knowing this could also provide insight into where it may still be found today.

Further reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, Natural Astronomy

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