Jupiter’s Auroras Are Powered By Mysterious Unexplained Source

Posted: Sep 8 2017, 3:05am CDT | by , Updated: Sep 8 2017, 3:13am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

Jupiter’s Auroras are Powered by Mysterious Unexplained Source
Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)

NASA's Juno spacecraft is aiming to solve the mystery of vividly glowing auroras

Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, creates stunning light show or auroras in its atmosphere. These auroras resemble the same phenomenon that wraps around our Earth’s polar region. But they are much bigger and hundreds of times more energetic than auroras on Earth. In fact, they are the most powerful auroras in the whole solar system.

While on Earth auroras are produced by intense solar storms – when high energy particles collide with gases in planet’s atmosphere – Jupiter has a strange additional power source for auroras.

By analyzing data collected by cutting-edge instruments aboard Juno spacecraft, researchers have observed signatures of powerful electric potentials over Jupiter’s magnetic field that contribute to the giant planet’s most powerful auroras. They accelerate electrons toward the Jovian atmosphere at energies up to 400,000 electron volts.

To put it into perspective, these electric potentials are 10 to 30 times higher than the ones observed on Earth, which typically require only few thousands of volts to generate most intense auroras and these kinds of auroras dazzle the skies of Alaska and Canada, northern Europe and many other northern and southern polar regions.

“At Jupiter, the brightest auroras are caused by some kind of turbulent acceleration process that we do not understand very well,” said Barry Mauk, who leads the investigation team for the APL-built Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI). “There are hints in our latest data indicating that as the power density of the auroral generation becomes stronger and stronger, the process becomes unstable and a new acceleration process takes over. But we’ll have to keep looking at the data.”

Prior to the new observations, it was thought that auroras on Jupiter are produced by the same processes that trigger auroras on Earth but that may not be the case. The process is more complicated than previously thought.

“For many years, we thought we understood Jupiter’s auroras. But then Juno got there and it went through these magnetic fields right above an active aurora and it did not see what we thought it would.” John Clarke from Boston University told New Scientist.

The latest observations are made by ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments installed on NASA's Juno spacecraft. The spacecraft has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 2016 and is providing the first opportunity to observe the gas giant in detail.

Juno is studying Jupiter’s auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure and atmosphere and the recent observations will help better understand how different sources influence auroras.

“These energetic particles that create the auroras are part of the story in understanding Jupiter’s radiation belts, which pose such a challenge to Juno and to upcoming spacecraft missions to Jupiter under development,” said Mauk. “What we learn here, and from spacecraft like NASA’s Van Allen Probes and Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) that are exploring Earth’s magnetosphere, will teach us a lot about space weather and protecting spacecraft and astronauts in harsh space environments. Comparing the processes at Jupiter and Earth is incredibly valuable in testing our ideas of how planetary physics works.”

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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