Jupiter ‘Northern Lights’ caused by solar storms

Chandra X-Ray Observatory spots aurora eight times brighter than normal and hundreds of times more energetic than those on Earth.

23rd March 2016
Jupiter ‘Northern Lights’ caused by solar storms © X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

© X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

If you thought the Northern Lights over the UK recently were spectacular, they’re nothing compared to what NASA scientists have spotted over Jupiter.

What have they seen?

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory is pretty adept at spotting all things X-Ray in space, and by pointing it at the Solar System’s largest planet during a huge 2011 interplanetary coronal mass ejection by the Sun they were able to study the aurora for the first time during a solar storm.

They saw massive hot spots of X-ray activity covering an area of Jupiter greater than the surface of the Earth pulsating eight times brighter than normal every 26 minutes.

What causes the aurora on Jupiter?

Similar to on Earth, aurora are caused by solar winds that bash the planet’s atmosphere. When the Sun ejects high-energy particles out of its body, these rush through space as solar wind, and the when they reach Jupiter, the stronger storms squash the planet’s magnetosphere by up to two million kilometres. It is this shifting of the boundary that causes the massive X-ray in Jupiter’s Northern Lights.

What next?

"There's a constant power struggle between the solar wind and Jupiter's magnetosphere,” says lead author and PhD student at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, William Dunn. “We want to understand this interaction and what effect it has on the planet.

By studying how the aurora changes, we can discover more about the region of space controlled by Jupiter's magnetic field, and if or how this is influenced by the Sun. Understanding this relationship is important for the countless magnetic objects across the galaxy, including exoplanets, brown dwarfs and neutron stars.”

The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics, will also help the Juno spacecraft better understand the relationship the Sun and solar winds have on Jupiter’s magnetosphere as part of its mission to investigate the origins of the planet and answer questions of how the Solar System formed.

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