If you were wondering what could possibly outshine your neighbors’ ostentatious Christmas lights every year, scientists just might have the answer. Astronomers at the University College of London were recently lucky enough to be an audience to the planet’s aurora borealis—eight times brighter than that on earth—with no admission necessary.
This isn’t the first time Jupiter has been all aglow. The Juno Spacecraft, launched by NASA in 2011, was able capture photos of violet light at the planet’s north pole, triggered by intense solar storms known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. Observational data from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has shown that these storms rain down high-energy particles and electromagnetic radiation on Jupiter’s magnetosphere (the area surrounding the planet where the dominant magnetic field is its own). Astronomer William Dunn and his colleagues from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory University College have found that the dazzling displays happen because of atmospheric particles that don’t get along. “Hot spot” regions on Jupiter are especially prone to reacting with CMEs because of ions that face off with those from the sun.
According to their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research, “carbon and oxygen are the most abundant heavy ions in the solar wind” while “Jupiter’s magnetosphere is dominated by sulfur and oxygen ions.” Sparks literally fly when the two clash, and the reaction generates powerful (and colorful) X-rays. The results are much prettier than the turbulence that powers them.
While Jupiter is 365 million miles away from Earth, the beautiful, violent reactions in its atmosphere may be able to tell us a few secrets. Juno is expected to arrive at Jupiter’s orbit in July, and as Dunn says, “combining observations of this kind with the approach and arrival of the Juno spacecraft in 2016 will offer further opportunities to understand the processes governing [the aurorae].” Space weather can also help us understand how solar winds interact with our own magnetosphere. The relationship between the sun and Jupiter will also give insight into the atmospheres of planets we previously could have only dreamed of visiting on the Starship Enterprise. While we might not be shaking hands with a Vulcan or Klingon anytime soon, we can use the Jupiter data to find out whether these planets could support extraterrestrial life. By comparing the influence of space weather on Jupiter’s atmosphere to Earth’s, scientists can gauge whether conditions on these planets are ideal for living things to thrive. The solar storms responsible for the aurorae will give us critical clues about the origins of Jupiter—and possibly our entire solar system.
So what’s next? Juno will illuminate even more about these Jovian fireworks and what they might reveal about planets and galaxies light-years away. This is also the best excuse ever to tell those annoying neighbors that no matter what they add to their electric bill around the holidays, there’s one epic light show theirs will never equal.