Scientists have solved the decades-old enigma of how Jupiter produces a burst of X-rays every few minutes.
The X-rays are caused by charged particles interacting with the planet’s atmosphere, resulting in bursts of visible and invisible light.
While the northern lights are caused by a comparable phenomena on Earth, Jupiter’s is significantly more powerful.
Researchers estimate that it releases hundreds of gigawatts of energy, enough to briefly power all of human civilization.
Researchers coupled close-up views of Jupiter’s environment by Nasa’s Juno satellite, which is now orbiting the planet, with simultaneous X-ray data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory (which is in Earth’s own orbit) to discover how Jupiter produces X-ray aurora.
The scientists observed that periodic oscillations of Jupiter’s magnetic field lines caused X-ray flares.
These vibrations cause plasma (ionised gas) waves, which send heavy ion particles “surfing” along magnetic field lines until they collide with the planet’s atmosphere, releasing energy as X-rays.
“We have seen Jupiter produce X-ray aurora for four decades, but we didn’t know how this happened,” said co-lead author Dr William Dunn of UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory.
“We just found out they were made when ions collided with the planet’s atmosphere.”
“Now we know these ions are transported by plasma waves – an explanation that has never been proposed previously, despite the fact that Earth’s aurora is caused by a comparable process.”
“It could, then, be a universal occurrence, existing throughout many diverse habitats in space,” says PA Wire. The planet’s X-ray auroras occur at its north and south poles, frequently with clockwork regularity.
Jupiter was emitting bursts of X-rays every 27 minutes during the research.
The charged ion particles that reach the atmosphere come from volcanic gas flowing into space from huge volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io, according to a study published in Science Advances.
Due to collisions in Jupiter’s near vicinity, this gas becomes ionized, meaning its atoms are stripped of their electrons, generating a doughnut of plasma that encircles the planet.
“Now that we have found this fundamental process, there are a multitude of possibilities for where it could be investigated next,” said co-lead author Dr Zhonghua Yao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
XRayAurora2 “Similar processes certainly occur around Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and possibly exoplanets as well, with different sorts of charged particles’surfing the waves,” according to the current study, which looked at images of Jupiter and its surroundings made by the Juno and XMM-Newton satellites over a 26-hour period.
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.
After that, the specialists utilized computer modeling to confirm that the waves would propel the heavy particles into the planet’s atmosphere.
Yet, it is unknown why the magnetic field lines vibrate on a regular basis.
The vibrations could be caused by interactions with the solar wind or high-speed plasma flows within Jupiter’s magnetosphere, according to researchers.
Jupiter’s magnetic field is incredibly powerful – around 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s – and as a result, its magnetosphere, or the area influenced by this magnetic field, is enormous.
It would cover a region several times the size of our moon if visible in the night sky.