One of Jupiter’s greatest mysteries may be solved

Just like Earth, Jupiter is home to polar lights, driven by charged particles racing through the planet’s magnetic field. When these charged particles hit the atmosphere, they release electromagnetic radiation.

However, the aurorae of Jupiter are (as might be expected) far more powerful than the iridescent displays we see at home. Hundreds of gigawatts of X-ray energy released in the auroral displays of Jupiter would be powerful energy to (momentarily) feed all human energy needs.

And, oddly, there are also regular flashes of light that blaze up every half hour or so, adding another piece to this mystery of Jupiter.

“Since their discovery 40 years ago, the processes that produce Jupiter’s x-ray flares have remained unknown. Here, we report simultaneous in situ satellite and space-based telescope observations that reveal the processes that produce Jupiter’s x-ray flares, showing surprising similarities to terrestrial ion aurora,” researchers describe in Science Advances.

Flash! Woo — ooh!

Regular flashes near the magnetic poles of Jupiter are seen every few tens of minutes, erupting in X-rays, as well as ultraviolet, infrared, and radio waves. For four decades, the cause of Jovian auroral lights remained a mystery.

In order to study this phenomenon, researchers compared 26 hours of X-ray data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory with close-up images of Jupiter taken at the same time by the Juno orbiter.

“We must believe then, that as from hence we see Saturn and Jupiter; if we were in either of the Two, we should discover a great many Worlds which we perceive not; and that the Universe extends so in infinitum.” — Cyrano de Bergerac

They found that this mystery of Jupiter, triggered by periodic vibrations in the magnetic field of the King of the Planets. These vibrations were found to drive waves within plasma (ionized gas) surrounding Jupiter.

Credit: NASA/ESA/John Clarke/University of Michigan