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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Captures Green Lightning on Jupiter

Alien lighting *should* be green.

By Cassidy Ward

A cosmic road trip to Proxima Centauri would be long and, in the case of SYFY's The Ark (streaming now on Peacock), potentially fatal. In exchange, however, passengers on an Ark ship to the stars would be witness to sights no human has ever seen before. Out the window of their ship, the passengers of the Ark One might see gamma ray bursts lighting up the perpetual night sky, eruptions of water feeding Saturn’s rings, and lightning striking in the skies of Jupiter.

How to Watch

Watch new episodes of The Ark Wednesdays at 10/9c on SYFY. Catch up on Season 1 on Peacock.

While we’re still figuring out how to build interplanetary (not to mention interstellar) ships, we’ve sent a fleet of machines out into the cosmos to do a little recon on our behalf, and they keep sending back absolute gold. In this case, that gold happens to be green.

NASA’s Juno Mission Sends Back Jovian Weather Report

The Juno spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011. It spent just shy of five years traveling to the largest planet in our solar system and entered into a polar orbit around Jupiter on July 5, 2016. Juno spent the next few years completing its primary mission studying the planet and its moons. Today, Juno is on an extended mission which will last until September 2025 or until the spacecraft gives up the ghost.

RELATED: Juno Digs Into Jupiter and Sees the Great Red Spot Goes Way Deeper Than Thought

In December 2020, Juno flew past the North Pole of Jupiter and captured snapshots of a polar vortex lit up with lightning. The lightning lies near the fringes of the vortex and glows with a brilliant green. Lightning, of course, isn’t all that unusual, but on Jupiter even the thundercracks are weird. On Earth, lightning is generated inside water clouds and is concentrated mostly at the equator. Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, only about 10 degrees north of the equator, has the highest concentration of lightning anywhere on Earth. Warm air from the lake juts up against cold air from the nearby Andes and triggers a nearly endless thunderstorm.

Green lighting strikes near a polar vortex near Jupiter's north pole.

On Jupiter, lightning is generated inside ammonia-water clouds and is concentrated mostly at the poles. While the raw data has been available since shortly after the December 2020 flyby, it wasn’t until citizen scientists Kevin M. Gill processed the images that we were treated to this gorgeous alien view.

NASA’s Citizen Science Programs

Juno used its onboard camera, JunoCam, to capture the raw data of its December 2020 flyby. That data was then uploaded to NASA’s JunoCam Image Processing Gallery. NASA encourages astronomers, both professional and amateur, to download data for post processing and share their results with the community. Processing can be as simple as zooming in on a particularly interesting feature or as complex as comparing images of the same region from different points in time, or reconstructing color from the black and white raw data. Because processing is largely done by volunteers, there can sometimes be a significant delay between the date of capture and the date of processing.

RELATED: Astronomers announce 12 previously undiscovered moons around Jupiter

This image uses data from JunoCam, captured from about 32,000 kilometers (19,900 miles) above the surface of Jupiter, from a latitude of roughly 78 degrees. Gill used the raw data to reconstruct a color image and bring out the ghostly green glow of an alien lightning strike.

NASA’s various citizen scientist projects facilitate collaboration between professional scientists and enthusiastic members of the public. To date, more than 410 citizen scientists have been named as co-authors in peer-reviewed scientific papers, thanks to their valuable contributions to astronomy. If you don’t have the stomach for interstellar travel, processing astronomical images is a pretty good (and imminently safer) way to see the cosmos.

You can always go to Proxima Centauri vicariously with the crew of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock.