NASA’s Juno spacecraft captures Earth-like lightning on Jupiter

Data obtained by NASA’s Juno probe provides new insights into how lightning processes on Jupiter are similar to those on Earth despite the dramatic differences between the two planets, scientists say.

Hidden beneath the brownish ammonia clouds that blanket Jupiter are clouds that, like on Earth, are made up of water. And like on Earth, lightning is often generated in these clouds – an eerie sight spotted by various spacecraft, including Juno, which have visited the largest planet in our solar system.

Earth is a relatively small rocky world. Jupiter, whose namesake of an ancient Roman god threw lightning, is a gas giant so huge that all the other planets in our solar system could fit perfectly into it, including more than 1,300 Earths.

Harnessing five years of high-resolution data acquired by Juno’s radio receiver as the spacecraft orbits Jupiter, the researchers found that the planet’s lightning initiation processes pulse at a rate similar to that seen in the Earth. inside the clouds on our planet. The pulses observed on Jupiter as lightning were initiated with time intervals of about one millisecond, similar to thunderstorms on Earth.

This illustration depicts NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Lightning is the most powerful natural electrical source on Earth.

“Lightning is an electrical discharge, which is initiated inside thunderclouds. The ice and water particles inside the cloud become charged by collisions and form particle layers with the charge of the same polarity,” said planetary scientist Ivana Kolmasova of the Czech Academy of Sciences. ‘ Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Prague, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“By this process, a huge electric field is established and the discharge can be initiated. This explanation is somewhat simplified because scientists are still not completely sure what exactly is going on inside storm clouds.”

lightning in the solar system

The existence of lightning on Jupiter was confirmed when telltale radio emissions at audible frequencies were recorded in 1979 by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft as it ventured through the solar system.

The other gaseous planets in the solar system – Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – have also been shown to have lightning. There is evidence of lightning in the clouds of the rocky planet Venus, although this is still a matter of debate.

Six black-and-white images show bright spots atop Saturn's clouds.
This image, from film captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2010, shows lightning bolts from Saturn’s night side flashing through a cloud illuminated by light from Saturn’s rings. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/University of Iowa)

Other studies have detailed other similarities in lightning processes on Jupiter and Earth. For example, the lightning rates on the two planets are similar, although the distribution of lightning on Jupiter differs from that on Earth.

“On Earth, the tropics are the most active. The majority of Jovian lightning occurs in the mid-latitudes and also in the polar regions. We have almost no lightning activity near the poles on Earth. This means that conditions for jovial and terrestrial thundercloud formation are likely very different,” Kolmasova said.

“There have been some attempts to compare lightning power based on optical measurements and it was concluded that lightning on Jupiter could be comparable to the strongest terrestrial lightning.”

Kolmasova noted that more analyzes are planned.

Jupiter is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, with traces of other gases. Stripes and a few thunderstorms dominate the colorful appearance of Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun with a diameter of about 143,000 kilometers.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, obtaining information about its atmosphere, interior structure, internal magnetic field, and the region around it created by its internal magnetism.

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