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Jupiter’s northern lights mystery solved after 40 years, scientists say



It is a phenomenon shared by other planets in our solar system, including the largest, Jupiter, which is bathed in spectacular color at its poles.

Characterized by massive pulsating X-rays, Jupiter’s northern lights were first discovered 40 years ago. Astronomers have long tried to explain the mechanism behind these northern lights. NASA has called them “a strong mystery.”

“They are unimaginably more powerful (than Earth) and much more complex. Jupiter’s northern lights have these bright flares, and these flares can be up to terawatts of power that would power the entire civilization,”

; said William Dunn, a fellow at University College London. Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

He was part of an international research team that says they have solved this 40-year-old mystery.

By combining observations and data from NASA’s spacecraft Juno, launched in 2016, and the European Space Agency’s X-ray telescope, the scientists found that the pulsating X-ray neuroras are caused by fluctuations in Jupiter’s magnetic field.

“Probably the reason it remained a mystery for 40 years because we had not had this opportunity. We have not had this beautiful and amazing spacecraft in Juno and also an X-ray telescope orbiting the Earth,” Dunn said.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances on Friday.

This image, created with data from Juno's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer, marks the path to Juno's readings of Jupiter's auroras.

Waves of particles

On Earth, the Northern Lights are primarily driven by solar wind – particles emitted during solar storms that flow out through space and are torn through the Earth’s magnetosphere, creating a colorful light show.

On Jupiter, there are other factors at play, Dunn said.

Jupiter spins much faster than Earth, and it has the strongest magnetic field on any planet in our solar system. What’s more, Jupiter’s third largest moon, Io, is covered by more than 400 active volcanoes that pump volcanic material into Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the region controlled by a planet’s magnetic field.

“The Northern Lights are basically a video of what’s going on in the magnetosphere,” Dunn said.

Jupiter’s X-rays were first discovered in 1979, Dunn added, which surprised scientists because the phenomena were usually associated with more exotic space bodies such as black holes and neutron stars.

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With the simultaneous observations of Juno and the X-Newton X-ray telescope, Dunn and his colleagues were able to connect X-ray pulses that occur at regular intervals with Jupiter’s breathtaking auroras.

“Every 27 minutes, Jupiter produces a series of X-rays. It gave us fingerprints. We knew that Jupiter did this every 27 minutes, and then we could look at the Juno data to see what processes also happen every 27 minutes. . “

What they found was when Jupiter rotates, it pulls around the magnetic field, which is hit directly by solar wind particles and compressed. These compressions heat particles – electrically charged atoms called ions – that are trapped in Jupiter’s magnetic field. This triggers a phenomenon called electromagnetic ion cyclotron waves (EMIC), the researchers say.

Guided by Jupiter’s magnetic field, the ions surf the EMIC wave and eventually slam into the poles of the planet, triggering the X-ray neurora.

Dunn said the next step for the research group would be to see if this process is unique to Jupiter, or if it happens on other planets – including those outside our solar system.


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