NASA's Juno Probe Unlocks Secrets of Jupiter's Unusual Lightning Storms

09 Juin, 2018, 11:59 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth.  via AP File

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. The Juno mission, however, gave researchers a chance to dig deeper into Jupiter's lightning. The image is based on a JunoCam image.

That said, it is worth noting that while the nature and frequency of lightning strikes on Jupiter is more similar to Earth's than scientists thought, the location of the phenomenon is completely different.

"Until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by spacecraft were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range", Mr Brown explained.

Enter NASA's Juno orbiter.

In particular, the Microwave Radiometer Instrument, which can detect radio emissions in a wide range of frequencies.

On Jupiter, lightning is clustered in the polar regions - it's "inside-out" relative to Earth, Brown said.

The first time you approach the planet, the spacecraft has recorded 377 of the lightning discharges, such as those that occur on Earth.

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

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"There is a lot of activity near Jupiter's poles but none near the equator. You can ask anybody who lives in the tropics - this doesn't hold true for our planet". At the equator, it's just warm enough that warm gas doesn't rise, but at the poles the gusts are lifted, driving convection to create lightning. It brought to light many new facts associated with the huge gas world including- the red spot's depth, the 3D imagery of gas underneath the surface of the planet, and the functionality of Jupiter's auroras. As Choi reports, scientists have speculated many reasons behind the difference, including variations in the atmosphere or even fundamental distinctions between how lightning forms. This means that even though the poles of Jupiter are actually colder than its equatorial belt, the heat from within the planet tends to drive convection of the lower atmosphere and provides moist, warm air for thunderstorms.

"These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation, and energy flows on Jupiter", Brown concluded. But another question looms, she said. "We can't explain why we see almost twice the amount of lightning in the Northern Hemisphere of Jupiter than we do in the Southern Hemisphere", Brown said.

In a separate paper published in Nature, a team of researchers led by Ivana Kolmašová of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague presented the largest database of low-frequency lightning-generated emissions collected to date.

The team, making use of Juno's Waves plasma and radio wave detector, discovered over 1,600 instances of lightning with peak rates of four strikes per second, Gizmodo reported.

"To really understand Jupiter, you need to map it", said Scott Bolton, principal investigator and associate vice president at the Southwest Research Institute. "Our unique orbit allows our spacecraft to fly closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft in history, so the signal strength of what the planet is radiating out is a thousand times stronger".

Shannon Brown et al.

But there's one more way lightning on Jupiter is similar to Earth lightning. NASA's Juno spacecraft has found Jovian lightning produces the same sort of radio emissions as those on Earth, but they only seem to occur at the poles.

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