NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took this image of Jupiter’s bright auroras in 2016. Image via NASA/ ESA/ J. Nichols.
Jupiter X-ray aurora mystery solved
So you think Earth’s northern lights are big and majestic? In July 2021, Randy Gladstone of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said in a NASA statement:
That’s nothing … Jupiter has auroras bigger than our entire planet.
In that statement, planetary astronomers were announcing that they’d just solved a 40-year-old mystery about the origins of Jupiter’s unusual X-ray auroras. They did it by combining measurements from NASA’s Juno spacecraft – now in orbit around Jupiter – with data from the European Space Agency’s Earth-orbiting XMM-Newton mission. For the first time, these scientists said, they’ve seen the entire aurora-making mechanism at work. They’ve seen that electrically charged atoms, or ions, responsible for the X-rays are surfing electromagnetic waves in Jupiter’s magnetic field down into the gas giant’s atmosphere.
The peer-reviewed journal Science Advances published this new work earlier this month.
What makes an aurora?
Maybe you’re familiar with earthly auroras. They are colorful displays of light in the skies visible from high latitudes. The aurora borealis shines within the Arctic Circle of Earth’s Northern ...