Jupiter’s strange, pulsating auroras are even more mysterious than we thought


Glowing high in the atmosphere, the northern and southern lights shine softly, brilliantly—and on Jupiter, weirdly.

Jupiter, like our own planet, has distinct auroras (northern lights by another name) near its poles. An aurora forms when charged particles are accelerated by a planet or brown dwarf’s magnetic field and slam into the atmosphere, creating beautiful lights in the night sky. In the case of Jupiter, many of the electromagnetic waves thrown off by its auroras are x-rays—invisible to human eyes, but key to understanding more about how auroras on Jupiter form.

In a study published in Nature Astronomy this week, astronomers announced that they’d finally been able to observe Jupiter’s southern x-ray hot spot in detail using data from the XMM-Newton and Chandra space observatories in 2007 and 2016. Surprisingly, Jupiter’s x-ray hot spots weren’t exactly in synch across the hemispheres.

In the southern half of the planet, the x-ray rich aurora pulses at a constant rate, spiking about every nine to twelve minutes. The northern one is much more erratic. It dims and brightens at a pace that is seemingly independent of its southerly counterpart. That’s different from Earth, where aurora caused by solar activity tend to affect both north and south poles in a predictable manner.

“The behavior of Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots raises important questions about what processes produce these auroras,” study co-author Licia Ray said in a statement. “We know that a combination of solar wind ions and ions of oxygen and sulfur, originally from volcanic explosions from Jupiter’s moon, Io, are involved. However, their relative importance in producing the X-ray emissions is unclear.”

Scientists had previously discovered that solar storms caused increased activity in Jupiter’s auroras, but they’re interested to know if other factors, like Jupiter’s massive magnetic field, have more of an impact on their formation.

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NASA's Juno spacecraft lands on Jupiter
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NASA's Juno spacecraft lands on Jupiter
An artist's rendering depicts NASA's Juno spacecraft above Jupiter's north pole in this undated handout image. Launched in 2011, the Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 to study the giant planet from an elliptical, polar orbit. Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Members of the Juno team celebrate at a press conference after they received confirmation from the Juno spacecraft that it had completed the engine burn and successfully entered into orbit around Jupiter,at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, U.S. in this July 4, 2016 handout photo. The Juno mission launched August 5, 2011 and will orbit the planet for 20 months to collect data on the planetary core, map the magnetic field, and measure the amount of water and ammonia in the atmosphere. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
(L-R) Dr. Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director, NASA; Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute; Geoff Yoder, acting Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, NASA; Michael Watkins, director, NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); and Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); celebrate with others on the Juno team after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the engine burn and entered orbit of Jupiter, in mission control of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, U.S. in this July 4, 2016 handout photo. The Juno mission launched August 5, 2011 and will orbit the planet for 20 months to collect data on the planetary core, map the magnetic field, and measure the amount of water and ammonia in the atmosphere. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
A 1/4 scale model of NASA's Juno Spacecraft is seen in front of an image of Jupiter, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, July 3, 2016. NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft is scheduled to enter into orbit around Jupiter on July 4 to begin an in-depth study of the planet's formation, evolution and structure. The key event on July 4 is a 35-minute engine burn at 11:18 p.m. EDT (0318 GMT on Tuesday), which is designed to slow Juno down enough to be captured by Jupiter's powerful gravity. / AFP / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
NASA's Juno Mission Principal Investigator Scott Bolton (L) and Robert Kondrk (R), Apple vice president for Content and Media Apps, speak at a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, June 30, 2016 to announce 'Destination: Juno,' a collaboration between NASA and Apple to bring 'exploratory' music inspired by space from artists such as Brad Paisley, Corinne Bailey Rae, GZA, Jim James featuring Lydia Tyrell, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Weezer and Zoé to Apple Music and iTunes listeners. The Juno spacecraft is scheduled to enter Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016 after a five years voyage to the fifth planet from the sun. / AFP / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
NASA Program Executive Diane Brown (L), Juno Mission Principal Investigator Scott Bolton (C) and Robert Kondrk (R), Apple vice president for Content and Media Apps, attend a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, June 30, 2016 to announce 'Destination: Juno,' a collaboration between NASA and Apple to bring 'exploratory' music inspired by space from artists such as Brad Paisley, Corinne Bailey Rae, GZA, Jim James featuring Lydia Tyrell, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Weezer and Zoé to Apple Music and iTunes listeners. The Juno spacecraft is scheduled to enter Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016 after a five years voyage to the fifth planet from the sun. / AFP / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JUNE 30: A scientist works at the Deep Space Network desk in the mission control room of the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL as NASA officials and the public look forward to the Independence Day arrival of the the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, at JPL on June 30, 2016 in Pasadena, California. After having traveling nearly 1.8 billion miles over the past five years, the NASA Juno spacecraft will arrival to Jupiter on the Fourth of July to go enter orbit and gather data to study the enigmas beneath the cloud tops of Jupiter. The risky $1.1 billion mission will fail if it does not enter orbit on the first try and overshoots the planet. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JUNE 30: Cassini Ace Bill Mogensen works at his desk in the mission control room of the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL as NASA officials and the public look forward to the Independence Day arrival of the the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, at JPL on June 30, 2016 in Pasadena, California. After having traveling nearly 1.8 billion miles over the past five years, the NASA Juno spacecraft will arrival to Jupiter on the Fourth of July to go enter orbit and gather data to study the enigmas beneath the cloud tops of Jupiter. The risky $1.1 billion mission will fail if it does not enter orbit on the first try and overshoots the planet. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - (From R) Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager, Scott Bolton, NASA principal investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter and Jim Green, NASA director of Planetary Science, react as the Juno spacecraft successfully enters Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / POOL / Ringo Chiu (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Scott Bolton (L), NASA principal investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter, reacts as the Juno spacecraft successfully enters Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / POOL / Ringo Chiu (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken (C) celebrates as the solar-powered Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on July 4, 2016. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / POOL / Ringo Chiu (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Staff members watch on before the solar-powered Juno spacecraft went into orbit around Jupiter, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on July 4, 2016. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / POOL / Ringo Chiu (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Diane Brown (L), NASA Juno program executive, Scott Bolton (C), Juno principal investigator and Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager, celebrate at a press conference after the Juno spacecraft was successfully placed into Jupiter's orbit, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on July 4, 2016. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken (L) and principal investigator Scott Bolton (R) celebrate as the solar-powered Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on July 4, 2016. Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on August 5, 2011 on a five-year voyage to its mission to study the planet's formation, evolution and structure. / AFP / POOL / Ringo Chiu (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JULY 4: Juno team members celebrate in mission control of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after receiving confirmation from the spacecraft that it has successfully entered orbit of Jupiter, July 4, 2016 in Pasadena, CA. The Juno mission launched August 5, 2011 and will orbit the planet for 20 months to collect data on the planetary core, map the magnetic field, and measure the amount of water and ammonia in the atmosphere. (Photo by Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images)
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Jupiter's auroras present other mysteries too. Last month NASA scientists measured massive amounts of energy swirling in Jupiter's magnetic field, the kind of energy that produces some of the brightest aurora on earth, but tens of times more powerful. Strangely though, those high levels of energy didn't produce the most intense aurora on Jupiter, another way that its auroras don't quite match up with ours.

To solve the mysteries, they’re going to have to take a closer look. The Juno spacecraft currently at Jupiter doesn’t have an x-ray observing instrument, but it can make other measurements in visible light, radio waves, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Combined with more remote x-ray observatories, the researchers hope that they can match up observations of x-ray hot spots with other physical processes that Juno observes in the atmosphere, and eventually shine some light on this aurora’s murky origins.

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