Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Lightning Strikes on Jupiter Differ From Ours in One Way

Jupiter is a massive, swirling mass of towering storm clouds, and anyone who lives on Earth knows that storms are fantastic at producing lightning. That encounter confirmed the existence of Jovian lightning, which had been theorized for centuries.

The $1.1 billion Juno mission has been extended through at least July 2021, NASA officials announced yesterday (June 6). Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / JunoCam.

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

Another interesting fact from the Juno data compared to the Voyager 1 data is that the radio waves from the lightning were in megahertz scale, that is thousands of times higher in frequency than previously seen. "Many theories were offered up to explain it, but no one theory could ever get traction as the answer".

This longer orbit means the Juno probe requires more time to collect the amount of data NASA aimed to acquire and process.

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.

"They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range, which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions", said Brown. The distribution pattern of lightning strikes on Jupiter is the exact opposite of the distribution pattern found on Earth.

"Jupiter lightning distribution is inside out relative to Earth", said Dr Brown.

The Juno data also has shed light on why lightning tends to occur only at high latitudes on Jupiter while they are common in the equatorial tropics on Earth.

Heat drives lightning, and the sun's rays cause Earth's equator to heat up more than the poles.

Earth's derives the vast majority of its heat externally from solar radiation.

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The poles don't experience this stabilising radiation, so warm gases from the planet's interior can rise to the upper atmosphere.

But for Jupiter, which orbits the Sun more than five times the distance that Earth does, and receives 25 times less sunlight, the atmosphere receives most of its heat from within the planet itself.

But there's one more way lightning on Jupiter is similar to Earth lightning.

Although Jupiter's equator is also warmer than its poles, scientists believe that it's down the stability of the atmosphere.

An artist's impression of lightning bolts in the atmosphere if Jupiter.

"These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation and energy flows on Jupiter". But another question looms, she said.

We have all seen lightning at some point on a stormy night.

In the Nature Astronomy paper, a research team led by Dr. Ivana Kolmašová of the Czech Academy of Sciences presents the largest database of lightning-generated "whistlers" (low-frequency radio emissions) around Jupiter to date.

When Voyager 1 flew past the planet in 1979, it collected data showing mysterious lightning-associated radio signals completely different to the signals produced by lightning on Earth.

NASA researchers just published a new paper in Nature that describes how they used data from the Juno probe to solve the mystery of Jupiter's odd lightning, and it reveals that the planet's storms produce flashes that are both very similar and also completely different from lightning on Earth.

"These updated plans for Juno will allow it to complete its primary science goals", said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton. "Our unique orbit allows our spacecraft to fly closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft in history".

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