A new study has answered the 40-year-old enigma of how Jupiter produces a dazzling burst of X-rays every few minutes.
Experts from University College London (UCL) examined data from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is presently orbiting Jupiter, our Solar System’s largest planet.
Scientists discovered that periodic vibrations in Jupiter’s magnetic field lines, or’magnetosphere,’ trigger X-ray outbursts from the planet’s north and south poles.
These vibrations produce plasma waves, which are one of the four fundamental states of matter and consist of an ion gas.
Heavy ion particles are then sent’surfing’ along magnetic field lines until they collide with the planet’s atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of X-rays and generating a beautiful aurora.
The northern lights are a comparable event that occurs on Earth, but Jupiter’s is considerably more powerful, releasing hundreds of gigawatts of electricity, enough to temporarily power all of human civilisation.
Images of Jupiter’s pole from NASA’s Juno satellite and NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope are superimposed.
A projection of Jupiter’s Northern X-ray aurora (purple) superimposed on a visible Junocam image of the North Pole is shown on the left.
WHAT IS A MAGNETOSPHERE? illustrates the southern counterpart.
The zone around a planet dominated by the planet’s magnetic field is known as the magnetosphere.
The magnetosphere protects humans from hazardous charged particles from the Sun by acting as an invisible forcefield.
Meanwhile, Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s, implying that its magnetosphere, or the area influenced by the magnetic field, is enormous.
It would cover a region several times the size of our moon if it was visible in the night sky.
The study authors claim that Jupiter’s X-ray aurora alone emits around a gigawatt, which is similar to what a single power station might create over several days.
Researchers at UCL collaborated with specialists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and their findings were published in the journal Science Advances.
‘We’ve known for four decades that Jupiter produces X-ray aurora, but we didn’t know why,’ said research author Dr. William Dunn of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.
‘We only found out they existed when ions collided with the planet’s atmosphere.’
‘Now we know that these ions are transported by plasma waves – an explanation that has never been proposed previously, despite the fact that a comparable process is responsible for Earth’s aurora.’
‘It could, therefore, be a universal phenomenon, prevalent across many diverse habitats in space,’ the researchers concluded after analyzing images of Jupiter and its surrounding environment made by Juno and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite, which is orbiting Earth.
They discovered a striking link between Juno’s plasma waves and X-ray auroral flares recorded by X-MM Newton at Jupiter’s north pole.
Astronomers have witnessed for the first time how Jupiter’s magnetic field is compressed, which heats particles and drives them along magnetic field lines into Jupiter’s atmosphere, sparking the X-ray aurora. THE ABUNDANCE OF PLASMA Virtually all observable stuff in the cosmos exists in a plasma state.
In this form, they can be found in the sun and stars, as well as in interplanetary and interstellar space.
Plasmas include auroras, lightning, and welding arcs.
Plasmas can be found in neon and fluorescent tubes, metallic solid crystal structures, and a variety of other phenomena and objects.
The Earth is surrounded by a dense plasma called the ionosphere and is engulfed in a tenuous plasma called the solar wind.
Scientists next utilized computer modeling to demonstrate that the waves would transport the heavy particles towards Jupiter’s atmosphere. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica Advertising
It’s unclear why the magnetic field lines vibrate at regular intervals – the process’s trigger.
But, the vibrations could be caused by interactions with the solar wind or high-speed plasma flows within Jupiter’s magnetosphere.
According to the team, X-ray auroras erupt at Jupiter’s north and south poles with clockwork regularity.
Jupiter was emitting X-ray bursts every 27 minutes during their observation window.
Now that the team has found the entire process, they feel it is likely that comparable processes occur around Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and possibly even exoplanets (planets beyond our Solar System).
Professor Graziella Branduardi-Raymont of UCL remarked, “X-rays are normally created by incredibly powerful and violent events such as black holes and neutron stars, so it seems unusual that simple planets emit them as well.”
‘We will never be able to visit black holes because they are beyond our ability to travel through space, whereas Jupiter is right on our doorstep.’
‘With the entry of the Juno satellite into Jupiter’s orbit, astronomers now have a fantastic opportunity to investigate an environment that produces X-rays up close.’ Juno is depicted above as it approaches Jupiter in an artist’s conception.
Juno was launched nearly a decade ago, on August 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to investigate Jupiter from orbit. It has been orbiting Jupiter for five years.
Juno, a solar-powered rotating spacecraft, arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, following a five-year trip.
It features three massive blades that extend 66 feet (20 meters) from its six-sided cylindrical body.
Juno will continue to investigate the largest planet in the solar system until September 2025, or until the spacecraft’s end of life.
Juno’s position in relation to Jupiter and its moons is updated in real time using an interactive NASA application.