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I just ran across some older articles in 2017 discussing how VLF radio waves created an artificial barrier to space weather. Basically how VLF improves Earth’s protection from solar radiation.

This made me wonder if the use of VLF would have similar effects on Mars to increase protection from solar radiation? Would such levels of protection be of any significance?


Further reading about VLF effects on Earth's ionosphere:

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    $\begingroup$ I saw that response; but it doesn’t tell me if the ionosphere on Mars would act similarly given the weaker magnetosphere... $\endgroup$ Dec 16 '20 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ Made an additional edit as suggested to reference the original article. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Dec 16 '20 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ looks great, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Dec 16 '20 at 8:24
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Can VLF be used to create a Mars barrier?

The short answer is no because Mars does not have an intrinsic magnetic field, thus no uniform dipole magnetic field to generate a magnetosphere. I wrote an answer about Jupiter that may be of interest as well at https://physics.stackexchange.com/a/142922/59023.

In the Earth's magnetosphere, the VLF frequency range corresponds to an electromagnetic wave mode known as a whistler wave. These come in a lot of different flavors (e.g., chorus, hiss, lightning-generated, lion roars, etc.). How they form is not fully resolved, but we have a decent idea and it is as follows.

During a substorm (or some other geomagnetic activity), electrons and ions are brought earthward from the geomagnetic tail. During this transit, the particles are pushed into regions of larger magnetic field magnitude (and the topology is more dipole-like than deep in the tail). Some particles flow directly along the magnetic field and are lost to Earth's atmosphere while others are reflected by the magnetic field gradient (i.e., it's like a magnetic mirror). So what researchers observe when they examine particle velocity distribution functions (VDFs) is an oblate distribution with the perpendicular (to the quasi-static magnetic field) direction being larger than the parallel. The distortion/oblateness results from the loss of particles to the atmosphere. The angular region in phase space where particles are lost versus those reflected by mirror forces is called the loss cone.

Anyways, such a VDF is unstable to something called a temperature anisotropy instability. Basically the particles have too much random kinetic energy perpendicular to the magnetic field, so some of the thermal oscillations of the plasma absorb that free energy and grow in amplitude. The modes that gain the energy are on the whistler mode branch of the dispersion relation.

Note that while the whistlers are being radiated, we must still conserve energy/momentum. So the particles in the VDF lose random perpendicular kinetic energy and are scattered as well. The end result is a more isotropic VDF. Now the whistler waves propagate away from their source regions and act on other VDFs. If the whistler wave propagates at an oblique angle to the magnetic field, it will be able to interact with charged particles through two mechanisms: cyclotron and Landau interactions (see https://physics.stackexchange.com/a/630629/59023 for more details).

I just ran across some older articles in 2017 discussing how VLF radio waves created an artificial barrier to space weather. Basically how VLF improves Earth’s protection from solar radiation.

These waves can lose amplitude and give energy to particles, usually electrons, which then acts to "clear out" regions of space around Earth, but only in the energy bands resonant with the waves. That is, this "barrier" is really poorly named and really only applies to PR-related stuff. It's only a "barrier" for a specific range of energies.

This has really nothing to do with solar radiation either. The radiation belts are populated, mostly, by energizing electrons that came from the geomagnetic tail. It is true that many of these were once of solar origin, but not all. Regardless, the particles don't come directly from the sun and then hop into the radiation belts.

Well I should be careful. There are two primary radiation belts, an inner and outer. They are nearly toroidal in shape, though their cross-sections look more like croissants than circles. The inner belt is almost exclusively protons and the outer mostly electrons. The particles in the inner belt have remarkably long lifetimes, on the order of years to many decades. The electrons in the outer belt, however, can be lost in seconds by hitting the magnetopause (called magnetopause shadowing) or to Earth's atmosphere (called particle precipitation) or they can remain relatively stable for several days.

Side Note: If you look up a Project Starfish you will discover we humans were rather foolish and ignited a nuclear weapon in the upper ionosphere. Some of the heavy ions generated by that explosion are still bouncing around in the inner of the two main radiation belt tori.

This made me wonder if the use of VLF would have similar effects on Mars to increase protection from solar radiation? Would such levels of protection be of any significance?

No, and basically none. As I said above, Mars does not have a uniform magnetosphere or stable radiation belts. The "barrier" that was made by Navy VLF transmitters only worked for very energetic electrons (if memory serves me, they were >1 MeV), which is at the very tail of the VDF (i.e., the lowest abundances).

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  • $\begingroup$ Researchers discuss and observations indicate Mars has a weak magnetosphere. meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EPSC2021/EPSC2021-305.html and space.dtu.dk/english/Research/Universe_and_Solar_System/… $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ChristopherKlaus - It has a weak ionosphere, which induces a sort of magnetosphere, yes. $\endgroup$ Sep 7 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ Basically I’m asking if with a weak magnetosphere you see a weak VLF effect. Nothing as strong as Earth’s response. I’m not expecting it would offer protection for all of Mars. But would Mars see a reduction of solar radiation risk, perhaps for a sliver of the Mars equator? Enough protection to be of value. $\endgroup$ Sep 11 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ @ChristopherKlaus - There are isolated regions of remnant magnetic fields on the surface of Mars, which would offer some level of protection (though not much). $\endgroup$ Sep 13 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ So would VLF increase those by an amount that would be of any value? $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 2:22
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I thought about this after the article popped up too! From what I could discern... The VLF just pushes out on the Van Allen Belts... not necessarily adding to them... but keeping them expanded to a further degree. More air in a balloon but not more balloon rubber. With Mars' magnetosphere being so weak it would probably only diffuse it in a larger area. It may be useful for transforming gas giant moons atmospheres by pushing back on dangerous radiation funneling around them. Perhaps augmenting Io's contribution to how the Jovian magnetosphere works/interacts with other moons in the system. Or perhaps future methods will enable us to transfer/direct part of the Van Allen belts to help protect moon bases...! For a Martian magnetosphere to benefit from VLF maybe we could transport some of Io's volcanic material to increase the balloon rubber so to speak... maybe a version of VLF could be used to direct enough of this material away to "mine" it safely. But I'm just speculating of course.

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  • $\begingroup$ My instinct is to agree with you; but then why indicate on Earth that VLF creates an “induced radiation barrier”? The article makes me think VLF creates some measurable improvement for Earth’s radiation protection capability by pushing the Van Allen Belts out further. Is that not true? If it is true, then one would expect the same to occur on Mars but to a lesser extent due to the weaker magnetosphere... $\endgroup$ Feb 7 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ Totally. That's what was stated. $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 2:04

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