The curious case of Jupiter’s lightning, solved by the Juno craft

09 June, 2018, 11:56 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • This artist’s concept of lightning distribution in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere incorporates a Juno Cam image with artistic embellishments. Data from NASA’s Juno mission indicates that most of the lightning activity on Jupiter is near its poles. Ima

Hence, the NASA scientists decided upon extending the Juno mission so that the required amount of data could be got.

But on Earth, these blazing bolts cling to the equator.

Using data from the Juno spacecraft that's now orbiting Jupiter, the scientists analyzed lightning-generated radio emissions that are dubbed as "whistlers".

Brown explained how all the previous probes - Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo and even Cassini recorded lightning signals, but they were, "limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range".

"Many theories were offered up to explain it, but no one theory could ever get traction as the answer", says Shannon Brown, Juno scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press release. "We have also found Jupiter's radiation environment in this orbit to be less extreme than expected, which has been beneficial to not only our spacecraft, but our instruments and the continued quality of science data collected". The origin of Jupiter's lightning is one such mystery it has focused on, ever since its Voyager 1 spacecraft flew past Jupiter in March 1979. The spacecraft landed on the surface of Jupiter on 4 July 2016.

But the radio signals slightly differed from what researchers have recorded on Earth, raising questions about the nature of lightning on Jupiter. The spacecraft came nearly 50 times closer to the planet than Voyager 1 ever did, flying "closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft in history", states Juno's principal investigator Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who was involved in both studies.

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Astronomers reveal most exclusive findings about Jupiter, a huge, twirling mass of transcending storm mists, and any individual who lives on Earth realizes that tempests are fabulous at delivering lightning.

Most striking of all is how these discharges are distributed across the planet's surface. Jupiter's recorded lightning strikes are typically smaller than on Earth, but not all the time, with most bursts have a frequency of about 600 megahertz, but which have the potential to reach gigahertz levels like the bolts seen on Earth. This doesn't hold true on Earth. This varying radio frequency suggests that the lightning from the two planets are wildly different. And unlike Earth, the majority of its heat is derived from within. The lightning originates at Jupiter's poles, rather than distributed across its surface, and the researchers attribute that to Jupiter's distance from the Sun.

Because of the extended time spent circling the planet, its work there is not complete. As Choi reports, scientists have speculated many reasons behind the difference, including variations in the atmosphere or even fundamental distinctions between how lightning forms.

Though Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, the Sun's rays do still heat up the gas giant's equator more than the poles. Devoid of this upper-atmosphere warmth, the poles do not have any atmosphere stability, which enables the warm gases from Jupiter's interior to rise, causing convection and consequently, all the elements that induce lightning.

According to scientists, this heat at Jupiter's equator is just enough to create stability in the upper atmosphere, inhibiting the rise of warm air from within.

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