NASA’s InSight lander has detected strange magnetic pulses in Mars’ magnetic field – and scientists are unsure what’s causing them.
The pulses start at around midnight local time, and can last as long as two hours, with wave periods of longer than 1 minute, according to scientists.
They are strongest in the north direction and weakest vertically, and don’t appear to be affected by vortical winds.
“During nighttime conditions near midnight local time, long pulsation trains are occasionally detected in the magnetic field,” the scientists wrote in their report .
“These measurements have important implications for future Mars exploration.
“The ionospheric currents and the wavetrains seen near midnight may enable future electromagnetic sounding of the martian interior.”
Magnetic pulses are not unusual. On Earth they are often triggered by disturbances in the upper atmosphere, solar winds, or kinks in the planet’s magnetic bubbles.
However, the timing and position of these Martian pulses are what is baffling scientists.
Space physicist Matthew Fillingim from the InSight science team told National Geographic that night-time pulsations on Earth tend to happen at higher latitudes, and are linked to the northern and southern lights.
However, InSight is currently positioned near Mars’ equator. If it was positioned in the same place on Earth at that time of night, it wouldn’t be able to detect these types of magnetic pulsations.
One theory is that the pulses are caused by the shape of Mars’ magnetic bubble, which is created as solar winds interacts with its thin atmosphere.
This bubble is “compressed by the solar wind’s magnetic field, causing part of the bubble to take on a tail-like shape,” National Geographic explains.
“At midnight, InSight’s spot on Mars is aligned with this tail, and as it passes through, the tail may be plucking the surface magnetic field like a guitar string.”
In addition to the strange magnetic pulsations, the InSight lander has also detected an electrically conductive layer, about 2.5 miles thick, deep beneath the planet’s surface.
While it’s too early to say for sure, there is a chance that this layer could be giant reservoir of water.
If this turns out to be the case, it could have enormous implications for the potential for life on the Red Planet – past or present.
The NASA scientists claim InSight’s findings could revolutionise our understanding of Mars, “in much the same way as the magnetic surveys of the Earth’s oceans have revolutionised our understanding of terrestrial tectonics”.