Jupiter is a stunning planet in many ways, with its beautiful bands of clouds, the largest storm in the solar system, and unusual phenomena like geometric storms at its poles. And it has some more oddities that we are yet to learn from, like the fact that it has weird X-ray aurors that are somewhat akin to the Northern Lights here on Earth.
For 40 years, scientists have wondered how these X-ray aurors work, and now a new study is revealing the mechanism behind them. Like the northern lights on Earth, the northern lights of Jupiter are caused by electrically charged particles that interact with the planet’s atmosphere. On our planet, these interactions create beautiful colors in the sky when they interact with the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field, which appear as auroras near the magnetic poles. But on Jupiter the northern lights appear in different areas and differ between the north and south poles. Sometimes they even pulsate, suggesting that they were due to a different magnetic field.
Artist’s impression of the upcoming Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission in orbit around Jupiter. Spacecraft: ESA / ATG Medialab; Jupiter: NASA / ESA / J. Nichols (University of Leicester); Ganymede: NASA / JPL; Io: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona; Callisto and Europe: NASA / JPL / DLR
With the help of computer models, the researchers were able to show that the northern lights of the earth are generated along so-called open field lines that emanate from the earth and extend into space, but that the northern lights of Jupiter are connected with closed field lines that begin and develop inside the planet then extend thousands of miles away before it ends back on the planet.
They also found that the pulses in the polar lights were due to fluctuations in the planet’s magnetic field caused by the planet’s rotation. The electrically charged particles “surf” along the field lines and finally hit the atmosphere of Jupiter, creating the polar light effect.
This phenomenon was observed using data from the Juno probe, which took 26 hours of continuous measurements in 2017 with its XMM-Newtonian X-ray instrument. The researchers were able to identify a connection between the planet’s magnetic processes and the production of the X-ray beam. Rays aurora.
And that couldn’t just happen on Jupiter. A similar process could happen elsewhere in our solar system or even beyond.
“This is a fundamental process applicable to Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and likely exoplanets,” said lead author Zhonghua Yao of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
The research is published in the journal Science Advances.