NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft hasn’t, technically started its science phase yet. But the probe has sent back some fascinating images of the mysterious upper atmosphere of Mars. For decades, the red planet’s upper atmosphere has baffled scientists. NASA sent its MAVEN spacecraft to solve the puzzle late last year, which entered the Martian orbit on September 21.

NASA's MAVEN Provides First Look At Mars' Upper Atmosphere

NASA’s probe is already exceeding expectations

MAVEN provided scientists first look at a solar storm that hit the red planet’s atmosphere last month. The spacecraft has sent back unprecedented UV images of the halos of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon surrounding Mars. The spacecraft also mapped the highly variable ozone underlying these high atmospheric layers.

NASA said MAVEN is now testing its instruments and lowering its orbit. The probe will help scientists understand how Mars lost most of its atmosphere. Today, Mars has a dry, cold climate with a thin atmosphere. But scientists believe the red planet once had a thick atmosphere that allowed water to remain liquid on the surface.

Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator, said data quality from all instruments is better than scientists anticipated in the early stage of the mission. Scientists believe solar energetic particles (SEPs) might have played a key role in driving atmospheric loss on Mars. SEPs are streams of high-speed particles from the sun, bombarded during explosive solar activity such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) or flares.

How does Mars’ atmosphere respond to SEPs?

Traveling through the interplanetary space, these solar energetic particles deposit their energy on the upper atmosphere of Mars. SEP events usually occur once every two weeks. Once the NASA spacecraft has turned all its instruments on, scientists will be able to find out how the upper atmosphere responds to such storms. Around the Earth, SEP storms can harm the sensitive electronic equipment on satellites.

MAVEN observed the red planet’s upper atmosphere using Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS), which is highly sensitive to sunlight reflected by atoms. MAVEN’s mission is going to get more interesting. Comet Siding Spring will fly by Mars this Sunday, shedding a lot of dust particles in the atmosphere of the red planet. These particles may interact with the atmosphere in fascinating ways.