Juno gets mission extension to complete science objectives

Christopher Davidson
June 9, 2018

Jupiter is worlds away from Earth, but the huge alien planet shares several similarities with the latter, such as lightning strikes. Why are so many of Jupiter's lightning storms clustered around the poles when those on Earth are more common near the equator?

The findings are detailed in two new papers.

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

NASA's Juno spacecraft gets an extension to orbit Jupiter for the next three years.

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.

The other study, published in the journal Nature, unveiled that lighting on Jupiter produces not only kilohertz emissions, the singular radio range detected by Voyager 1 almost four decades ago, but also gigahertz radio waves, just like lightning on Earth. Many theories tried to explain the phenomenon, but none of them could ever visualize traction as the answer. Well, long before we had Juno orbiting Jupiter, scientists were able to record the lightning on this planet only within the kilohertz range. Among its suite of highly sensitive instruments is the Microwave Radiometer Instrument (MWR), which records emissions from the gas giant across a wide spectrum of frequencies.

"In the data from our first eight flybys, Juno's MWR detected 377 lightning discharges", said Mr Brown.

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"They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range [of the radio spectrum], which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions", Brown added.

Juno is unraveling Jupiter's mysteries.

There is a key difference between Jupiter's lightning and Earth's, however. There's none at the equator. On Earth, the opposite is true - and the team believes it has to do with heat. Earth isn't the only planet in the solar system to have storms that produce lightning.

As for why lightning only seems to occur at high latitudes in Jupiter's atmosphere, Brown said it all comes down to the planet's average distance from the Sun, 779 million kilometres (484 million miles). The difference is that Earth's atmosphere gets its heat mainly from the Sun, which allows huge thunderheads to form thanks to the warm, moist air in the tropics as it rises to create thunderheads. Lighting is also more frequent in the northern hemisphere than the southern, something not yet explained.

"That distribution of lightning is kind of upside-down from what we'd expect on Earth", he said. The dataset of in excess of 1,600 signs, gathered by Juno's Waves instrument, is right around 10 times the number recorded by Voyager 1. Striking a note similar to the thunderstorms on Earth, Juno detected peak lightning strikes of 4 per second, exceeding the peak values detected by Voyager 1 by 6 times. The Waves instrument onboard measuring electric and magnetic field samples found that the whistlers are only last a few milliseconds to tens of milliseconds, compared to the several seconds previously measured by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

Together, these findings represent the most detailed and comprehensive look at Jupiter's lightning to date, and provide important clues to figuring out the complex dynamics hidden by the planet's opaque layers of stormy clouds.

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