Juno Scientists Solve Mysteries of Jupiter's Lightning | Planetary Science, Space Exploration

An artist's impression of the lightning storms on Jupiter. Pic NASA  JPL

Jupiter's lightning, however, appeared different than thunderstorms here on Earth.

"They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range, which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions".

"No matter what planet you're on, lightning bolts act like radio transmitters - sending out radio waves when they flash across a sky", Shannon Brown of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of the latest work said in a statement.

NASA's Juno spacecraft will maintain its 53-day polar orbit around Jupiter during its continued mission.

This artist's concept of lightning distribution in Jupiter's northern hemisphere incorporates a Juno image with artistic embellishments.

"Lightning on Jupiter can be as frequent as on Earth", stated Ivana Kolmasova from the Czech Academy of Sciences and the leading author of one of the recent studies. The Juno mission, however, gave researchers a chance to dig deeper into Jupiter's lightning. The lightning originates at Jupiter's poles, rather than distributed across its surface, and the researchers attribute that to Jupiter's distance from the Sun.

In a nutshell, what NASA has found is that the lightning on Jupiter is strikingly similar to lightning on Earth in terms of frequency. But when the venerable explorer hurtled by, the data showed that the lightning-associated radio signals didn't match the details of the radio signals produced by lightning here at Earth.


Now, for the first time, Brown's team has detected atmospheric radio signals from lightning - called sferics - in the megahertz range, and it's thanks to Juno's suite of new and highly sensitive instruments.

Also, the second study on thunderstorms of Jupiter confirms the findings of the first one. Its mission managers initially wanted to destroy the orbiter by plunging it into Jupiter's clouds sometime after it concludes its mission in July.

This was probably due to the way that the gas giant was heated, the team believed - because on Earth, where we received most of our heat from the sun's radiation, the hottest place is the equator which receives the most of the sunshine. Heat rising from the planet creates roiling convection currents that lead to storms and lightning. The spacecraft came nearly 50 times closer to the planet than Voyager 1 ever did, flying "closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft in history", states Juno's principal investigator Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who was involved in both studies.

What this means is that as the hot, moist air rises from deep in the Jovian atmosphere, it meets a cap of warm air in the tropical regions of Jupiter.

Brown said these findings could help scientists' understand how energy flows on Jupiter. As Jupiter produces lightning through electrical reactions between ice and water droplets, the lightning's location suggests that the water-filled gas in the atmosphere circulates toward the poles. Because a group of experts found the results achieved so far satisfactory and seeing how close the mission is to achieving its goals, NASA was able to to extend the life of the machine by 2021.

Juno will make flyby number 13 over Jupiter on 16 July this year.

Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio said, "These discoveries could only happen with Juno".

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