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Jupiter’s Mysterious Lightning - New Discoveries Have Been Made

09 June 2018

"Given the very pronounced differences in the atmospheres between Jupiter and Earth, one might say the similarities we see in their thunderstorms are rather astounding".

On Earth, radio waves associated with lightning are in the megahertz range. Specifically, the mission's main goal is to try and determine how much water is in the planet's atmosphere and to measure its composition, temperature, cloud patterns, and map its magnetic and gravity fields. And while Voyager and subsequent NASA spacecraft detected strikes only in the relatively low-frequency kilohertz range, Juno has revealed that Jupiter also has strikes in the higher-frequency megahertz and gigahertz ranges, just like Earth.

"No matter what planet you're on, lightning bolts act like radio transmitters, sending out radio waves when they flash across a sky", said Shannon Brown, a Juno researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Lightning at Jupiter can be as frequent as on Earth", lead author of the study Ivana Kolmašová, of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, confirmed.

In Jupiter, lightning occurs mostly near the poles and is more common in the northern hemisphere.

Meanwhile, a second study also published in Nature examined the nature of the lightning from Jupiter further. 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.

"There is a lot of activity near Jupiter's poles but none near the equator", Brown said. Many theories tried to explain the phenomenon, but none of them could ever visualize traction as the answer.

They do provide some warmth, heating up Jupiter's equator more than the poles - just as they heat up Earth.

Jupiter's lightning is clustered in the polar regions, while Earth experiences lightning more frequently around the equator.

Scientists believe Juno was able to pick up the megahertz signatures because its flyby put it closer to the lightning than any spacecraft before it.

When Juno flew by the planet in 2016, she used a wide range of highly sensitive instruments to record the emissions of a gas giant. Heat rising from the planet creates roiling convection currents that lead to storms and lightning.

Still, we must keep in mind that a significant difference between Earth's lightning and Jupiter's remains.

This causes warm most air to rise most freely at the equator, powering huge lightning storms. In any case, despite the fact that Jupiter's atmosphere infers the more of its heat within the planet itself, this doesn't render the Sun's beam irrelevant. In the release, Brown explains a possible reason behind the discrepancy: "We think the reason we are the only ones who can see it is because Juno is flying closer to the lighting than ever before, and we are searching at a radio frequency that passes easily through Jupiter's ionosphere".

But the findings did reveal something important about Jupiter's atmospheric composition and circulation.

The $1.1 billion Juno mission has been extended through at least July 2021, NASA officials announced yesterday (June 6).

Juno makes most of its observations during its closest approaches to Jupiter, which occur once every 53 days.

Dr. Scott Boltonis principle investigator of Juno of the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio.

Jupiter’s Mysterious Lightning - New Discoveries Have Been Made