CME Toward Red Planet at About the Time of MSL Launch

On November 26, 2011, Curiosity blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Around the time that Curiosity’s rocket was breaking the bonds of Earth, a filament of magnetism erupted from the sun, hurling a billion-ton cloud of plasma (a coronal mass ejection or CME) toward the Red Planet. There was no danger of a collision Mars rover against solar storm. Racing forward at 2 million mph, the plasma cloud outpaced Curiosity’s rocket by a wide margin. Next time could be different, however. With solar activity on the upswing (Solar Max is expected in 2012-2013) it’s only a matter of time before a CME engulfs the Mars-bound rover. 

According to Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colorado, they look forward to such encounters because Curiosity is equipped to study solar storms. Hassler is the principal investigator for Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector, RAD for short. Encounters with CMEs pose little danger to Curiosity. By the time a CME reaches the Earth-Mars expanse, it is spread so thin that it cannot truly buffet the spacecraft. Nevertheless, RAD can sense what happens as the CME passes by.