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NASA Solves The Mystery Of Jupiter's Lightning

09 June 2018

Their existence was first confirmed when the Voyager 1 craft flew past Jupiter in March 1979 - but that encounter also left us with more unanswered questions.

In a pair of studies published on June 6, scientists from the Juno mission describe the radio emissions coming from Jovian lightning - dubbed "whistlers" on account of their descending whistling pitch, which sounds a lot like a falling bomb - as well as the novel frequencies at which they were picked up by the spacecraft still in orbit around the gas giant.

There also seems to be more lightning in Jupiter's northern hemisphere compared to its southern side.

When the latest NASA Jupiter probe, Juno, entered orbit on July 2, 2016, it brought two new tools to bear. The image is based on a JunoCam image.

To learn more about the Jupiter's lightning storms and how they form and behave in the solar system's giant gaseous planet, the researchers have recently made a decision to gather all the data on storms on Jupiter sent by NASA's Juno probe which is still circling around the giant planet.

"But until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by several NASA spacecraft were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range".

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"Many theories were offered up to explain it, but no one theory could ever get traction as the answer", Brown said of the problem.

Juno launched back in 2011 with the goal of unlocking Jupiter's secrets to help NASA better understand the solar system and planet's origins. During its first eight trips around the planet, its Microwave Radiometer Instrument detected 377 lightning blasts. Emissions were recorded in both the megahertz and gigahertz range, "which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions", according to Brown.

Juno is unraveling Jupiter's mysteries.

Lightning flashes on Jupiter in this artist's impression. 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. "You can ask anybody who lives in the tropics-this doesn't hold true for our planet", Mr Brown added.

Why do lightning bolts congregate near the equator on Earth and near the poles on Jupiter?

Jupiter's receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, as its orbit is five times farther from the Sun than Earth's. Most of the energy in Jupiter's atmosphere is derived from its solid core. And as per the NASA Scientists, this heating at Jupiter's equator maintains the stability of heat levels in the upper atmosphere, restricting the rise of warm air from within. This means that even though the poles of Jupiter are actually colder than its equatorial belt, the heat from within the planet tends to drive convection of the lower atmosphere and provides moist, warm air for thunderstorms.

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While Jovian lightning appears to produce the same radio signals as bolts on Earth, the phenomena are still quite different. Looking at the new Juno data, scientists found that the instance of lightning strikes on Jupiter are six times higher than what Voyager 1 had detected.

The principal investigator of Juno, Scott Bolton at the Southwest Research Institute, said, "NASA has approved Juno to continue through 2022 to finish all of our originally planned science".

"Our microwave and plasma wave instruments are state-of-the-art, allowing us to pick out even weak lightning signals from the cacophony of radio emissions from Jupiter".

Shannon Brown et al. It took nearly five years to reach Jupiter after a roundabout route that sent it on a flyby of Earth in 2013 to build up speed to match orbits with Jupiter.

Ivana Kolmašová et al.

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NASA Solves The Mystery Of Jupiter's Lightning