NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has been observing the atmosphere of Mars and were stunned to find that parts of it pulse throughout the night. The flashes of light can only be seen with ultraviolet technology, meaning a human could not see it, but only happens during the night.

Scientists from NASA were “surprised” to see the flashes, which happen three times a night but only in the spring and autumn months.

According to NASA, the flashes of ultraviolet light occur when vertical winds carry gases down to regions of higher density, speeding up the chemical reactions that create nitric oxide and power the ultraviolet glow.

Zac Milbyof the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), Boulder, Colorado, said: “The ultraviolet glow comes mostly from an altitude of about 70 kilometres (approximately 40 miles), with the brightest spot about a thousand kilometres (approximately 600 miles) across, and is as bright in the ultraviolet as Earth’s northern lights.

“Unfortunately, the composition of Mars’ atmosphere means that these bright spots emit no light at visible wavelengths that would allow them to be seen by future Mars astronauts.

“Too bad: the bright patches would intensify overhead every night after sunset, and drift across the sky at 300 kilometres per hour (about 180 miles per hour).”

The data also revealed that “planet-circling waves” which indicate Mars’ middle atmosphere is influenced by the daily pattern of solar heating from the top and disturbances from Mars’ huge volcanic mountains at the bottom.

NASA said: “These pulsating spots are the clearest evidence that the middle atmosphere waves match those known to dominate the layers above and below.”

Sonal Jain, also of LASP, added: “MAVEN’s main discoveries of atmosphere loss and climate change show the importance of these vast circulation patterns that transport atmospheric gases around the globe and from the surface to the edge of space.”

Nick Schneider of LASP said: “MAVEN’s images offer our first global insights into atmospheric motions in Mars’ middle atmosphere, a critical region where air currents carry gases between the lowest and highest layers.”

Next, the team plans to look at nightglow “sideways”, instead of down from above, using data taken by IUVS looking just above the edge of the planet.

This new perspective will be used to understand the vertical winds and seasonal changes even more accurately.

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