The Mystery of Jupiter’s powerful auroras finally solved

A recent study suggests that mysterious X-ray bursts from Jupiter’s auroras suggest that the big planet’s “northern lights” may have unexpected connections to Earth’s.

In the north or south lights on earth, Auroras, shimmering displays of light are observed above the poles of several planets around the solar system. The light of dance is formed when energy particles slit into a planet’s magnetosphere. The magnet field of Jupiter is extremely strong — around 20,000 times stronger than the Earth — and its magnetosphere is therefore extremely large. If it were visible in the night sky, that extraterrestrial magnetosphere would cover several times the size of the moon. As such, the auroras of Jupiter are much more strong than those of the earth that release hundreds of gigawatts — enough to power the entire civilization of man briefly.

The auroras of Jupiter also produce unusual X-ray flares, which are caused by electrically charged sulfur and oxygen ions ejected by Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io. Each of Jupiter’s X-ray auroras emits around a gigawatt of energy, equivalent to what a single power station on Earth would produce over several days. These X-ray auroras frequently pulse in regular beats lasting a few dozen minutes and lasting dozens of hours.

The precise mechanisms that cause these flares have long been a mystery. “We have been puzzling over what may cause Jupiter’s spectacular X-ray aurora for more than 40 years,” study co-lead author Zhonghua Yao, a planetary scientist at Beijing’s Key Laboratory of Earth and Planetary Physics.

On July 16 and 17, 2017, researchers used NASA’s Juno probe, which orbits Jupiter, to examine the magnetosphere of the giant planet closely in order to determine the source of these flares. Simultaneously, they had the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton telescope, which orbits Earth, remotely analyzes Jupiter’s X-rays.

The scientists found out that the regular vibrating of Jupiter’s magnetic field lines is apparently the cause of the X-ray flares. These vibrations create planetary-scale plasma waves, which send “surfing” heavy ions in the magnetic field lines until they break up in the atmosphere of the planet, releasing energy in the form of rays.

Similar plasma waves can contribute to the creation of Earth aurora. As such, even though Jupiter is so much larger than Earth, like larger mass and diameter, more energy, stronger magnetic fields, and faster rotation.

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