Researchers have observed Jupiter’s “northern lights” for the first time ever during a solar storm.
The solar storm caused parts of the gas giant’s X-ray aurora to flare eight times as bright as normal. Scientists now better understand how Earth interacts with solar storms and solar winds, and improved our knowledge of space and planetary processes.
Solar storm causes amazing aurora display
Results of the study were published Tuesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics. The paper comes ahead of the arrival of the NASA Juno mission in orbit around Jupiter. The probe is expected to arrive on July 4.
“The sun is constantly pouring out charged particles – the solar wind,” said lead author Will Dunn, a doctoral student in planetary science at the University College London, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “A solar storm is when you have a massive ejection of these particles, which erupts into space.”
Researchers were able to predict when the storm would arrive at Jupiter by watching as it moved from the sun, past Earth and into the solar system. They were then able to schedule an observation window with NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope.
X-ray lighthouse pulses quicker during storm
Their predictions proved correct and scientists were able to watch a brilliant show from the northern lights. There were brilliant flares and another curious phenomenon involving Jupiter’s X-ray “lighthouse.”
The lighthouse usually pulses every 45 minutes, but during the storm the rate increased to around 26 minutes.
“It’s like a planetary lighthouse,” says Mr. Dunn, “pulsing quicker when the storm hits.”
The researchers aren’t sure why the lighthouse released energy more often during the storm, but they should soon be able to find out.
NASA’s Juno probe will help further research
The Juno spacecraft will allow the team to compare readings from the probe to those made by Earth-based telescopes in order to better investigate the phenomenon.
“Juno will settle into a polar orbit,” says co-author Marissa Vogt of Boston University, “whereas Galileo [the only previous mission to orbit Jupiter] stayed on the equatorial plane. Juno’s going to get really good views of the aurora.”
In general, explains Dunn, “if a planet has no magnetosphere, the solar winds will sweep away the atmosphere – unless the planet has a way of constantly replenishing its atmosphere.”
A magnetosphere is a global magnetic field that surrounds every magnetized planet. It helps to protect the planet from solar storms and the solar radiation that they release. Without the protection of a magnetosphere it is unlikely that a planet would be able to support life.
Jupiter research aids understanding of Earth
Dunn explains that Mars used to have a magnetosphere but it has largely disappeared today. As a result “the solar wind for the last few billion years has swept away the atmosphere,” he says.
The almost nonexistent magnetosphere and minimal atmosphere “can’t protect the surface from radiation that life would find harmful.”
The interactions between the magnetosphere, atmosphere and solar radiation is known as space weather. It can cause amazing aurora displays while at the same time endangering satellite communications and other orbiting technology.
Research into Jupiter’s space weather ultimately helps scientists to better understand the Earth’s.
“If you could stand on Jupiter and observe its aurora, they would appear brighter than the sun itself, even during the day,” he says. “Moreover, its northern lights are massive, bigger than the Earth if you flattened it out and laid it on Jupiter.”