The Mystery of Insane Lightning Storms on Jupiter Has Finally Been Solved

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

Some of the most interesting findings of the mission are that the planet is riddled with storms the size of Earth and that atmospheric features are unlike anything else encountered in our solar system.

"Jupiter lightning distribution is inside out relative to Earth", said said Shannon Brown, lead author of the paper and a Juno scientist. The image is based on a JunoCam image.

According to NASA, an independent panel of experts reviewed the mission and in April confirmed that Juno's instruments are in good condition and can still meet all of its objectives if given time.

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.

Using data from the Juno spacecraft that's now orbiting Jupiter, the scientists analyzed lightning-generated radio emissions that are dubbed as "whistlers".

Fancy science-speak for "we didn't have a clue what was up".

But the team also noted something not like Earth at all: Jupiter's lightning activity is clustered around its poles.

Brown revealed that, during Juno's first eight flybys of Jupiter, the spacecraft's Microwave Radiometer instrument picked up 377 lightning blasts, which "were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range" - the same as "what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions".

Juno is unraveling Jupiter's mysteries.

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.

Most striking of all is how these discharges are distributed across the planet's surface.

In accordance with Juno's readings, the scientists were able to calculate about 1,600 lightning events in Jupiter's atmosphere, by about 10 times more than the previous estimates made in conformity with the Voyager's readings. This doesn't hold true on Earth.

William Kurth of the University of Iowa, who is study co-author on both papers, notes that the similarities found between lightning strikes on these two planets were a bit of a surprise.

"There is a lot of activity near Jupiter's poles but none near the equator". This movement is what fuels the thunderstorms which, in turn, produce lightning.

On Jupiter, however, sunlight is much, much dimmer. This orbit takes Juno as close as 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) to the gas giant, and as far away as 5 million miles (8 million km). This means the planet receives 25 times less heat than our planet.

Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere is riddled with storms, so it stands to reason there's lightning there too. At the poles, that upper level warmth is not present, allowing warm air from the interior to rise, driving the convection that generates lightning. As we have mentioned before, lightning storms on our planet are gathering around the equator, in the tropical regions, due to the moisture that is rising through the atmosphere.

Brown said "These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation and energy flows on Jupiter". But another question looms, she said. Before Juno - which has been orbiting Jupiter since the summer of 2016 and has more sensitive instruments than older probes - the lightning on Jupiter was only recorded in the kilohertz range.

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