The solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, has lightning almost identical to its fifth largest, Earth.
That’s despite Jupiter also being a gas rather than a rocky planet and about 11 times Earth’s diameter.
The unlikely truth about Jupiter’s lightning—giant sparks of electricity in its atmosphere—has been uncovered by researchers looking at five years’ worth of data from NASA’s spacecraft Juno. It has been orbiting the giant planet since mid-2016.
Published recently in Nature Communications, the new paper details high-resolution data acquired by Juno’s Waves instrument, which is designed to help understand the interaction between Jupiter’s atmosphere, its magnetic field and its magnetosphere (the region around a planet dominated by the planet’s magnetic field).
Lead author Ivana Kolmašová and her team discovered that radio pulses on Jupiter occurred a millisecond apart, which suggests step-like features of lightning initiation similar to that seen in thunderstorms on Earth.
The results indicate that the way lightning stars on Jupiter may be comparable to that of lightning inside clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, according to the authors.
The way lightning is produced on Jupiter may be similar to Earth, but there are also huge differences. Thunderheads on the giant planet can reach 40 miles from base to top—five times taller than those found on Earth. It’s also thought that lightning flashes on Jupiter are as much as three times more energetic than Earth’s largest “super-bolts” of lightning.
Jupiter’s enigmatic features have been laid bare since Juno reached the Jovian System almost seven years ago.
Juno has also been able to study the“Great Red Spot”—the solar system’s largest storm—which has a diameter of 15,400 miles, almost twice the size of the entire Earth and one-sixth the diameter of Jupiter itself. This is a storm that’s been going on since at least the year 1830.
Juno has also used its microwave radiometer (MWR) instrument to reveal that anticyclones on Jupiter, like the “Great Red Spot,” are colder at the top but warmer at the bottom while cyclones are warmer on top and colder at the bottom.
The $1.1 billion solar-powered spacecraft was launched on August 5, 2011 and began to orbit Jupiter on July 4, 2016.
Currently orbiting Jupiter in an elliptical orbit every 38 days, it’s now in an extended mission phase that will complete on September 15, 2025 when during its 76th orbit it will descend into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere and disintegrate to prevent it from accidentally crashing into, and possibly contaminating, one of Jupiter’s moons.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.