NASA's Juno spacecraft solves the mystery behind Jupiter's lightning storms

A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth.  via AP File

A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth. via AP File

Now, after nearly four decades, thanks to findings collected by NASA's Juno spacecraft, astronomers might have received their long-awaited answers. The phenomenon, which has been theorized for centuries, prompted a number of questions including the origin of the lightning and how it is different from Earth, considering the unearthly nature of the gas giants. Now, however, Juno can hear the signals the others missed, and that means the lightning on Jupiter is actually a lot like our own... but not exactly the same. Although, in some ways, the two types of lightning are polar opposites.

"No matter what planet you're on, lightning bolts act like radio transmitters-sending out radio waves when they flash across a sky", Shannon Brown of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and lead author of the work, explains.

Another interesting fact from the Juno data compared to the Voyager 1 data is that the radio waves from the lightning were in megahertz scale, that is thousands of times higher in frequency than previously seen.

In a release by NASA, the agency explains how Juno, which is right now orbiting the gas giant is using one of its sensitive instruments - Microwave Radiometer Instrument (MWR).

The resemblance of Jupiter to our planet was confirmed by a second study led by Dr. Ivana Kolpashovo, which revealed that lightning on Jupiter blow at a speed, such as those that occur during thunderstorms on Earth.

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"They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range, which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions", said Brown.

Juno is unraveling Jupiter's mysteries.

The Juno probe has unveiled new exciting information about Jupiter's lightning storms, and it's more similar to conditions on Earth than initially thought.

"Jupiter lightning distribution is inside out relative to Earth", said Brown. The majority of Jupiter's zaps take place near the poles. "You can ask anybody who lives in the tropics - this doesn't hold true for our planet", says Brown. They think that, because Jupiter's atmosphere is stable near its equator thanks to warmth from the Sun, the lightning is forming in the much less stable air rising near its poles from within the planet.

According to scientists, this heat at Jupiter's equator is just enough to create stability in the upper atmosphere, inhibiting the rise of warm air from within. However, the team explains, that tiny quantity of heat it does receive from the Sun does heat up its equator more than the poles.

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The findings could further get elaborated as Juno continues its work around Jupiter.

"This will help us better understand the composition, general circulation and energy transport on Jupiter".

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

This discovery was backed up in the second article, published by a team of scientists of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, which presented the most famous record collection of lightning with a giant planet. The set of over 1,600 signals, was also produced with data gathered from Juno.

Juno's Principle investigator from the South West Research Institute, Scott Bolton, revealed in an email that the orbits are longer than expected and that is why the spacecraft needs more time to collect planned scientific measurements.

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Trapped in a 53-day orbit, the Juno mission was hampered because the spacecraft is in a very eccentric trajectory that allows it to pass under Jupiter's deadly radiation belts to make observations of the cloud tops at a closer distance than any previous mission.

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