Astronomers finally solve a decades-old mystery surrounding Jupiter’s x-ray bursts

Shane McGlaun - Jul 10, 2021, 9:39am CDT
Astronomers finally solve a decades-old mystery surrounding Jupiter’s x-ray bursts

A group of researchers has solved a mystery that has lingered for 40 years of how Jupiter produces bursts of x-rays every few minutes. The team says the x-rays are part of Jupiter’s aurora, which are bursts of visible and invisible light occurring when charged particles interact with the atmosphere of the massive planet. On Earth, auroras happened as well and are more commonly known as the northern lights.

However, Jupiter’s aurora is much more powerful than the Aurora here on Earth. Jupiter releases hundreds of gigawatts of energy with its aurora, which is enough to power the entirety of human civilization briefly. The new study was published recently, and researchers combined close observations of Jupiter’s environment gathered by the NASA Juno satellite orbiting the planet with simultaneous x-ray measurements taken from the ESA XMM-Newton Observatory orbiting Earth.

The team discovered that x-ray flares were triggered by periodic vibrations of magnetic field lines. The vibrations create plasma waves that send heavy ion particles “surfing” along the magnetic field lines until they smash into the planet’s atmosphere. When they smash into the atmosphere, they release energy in the form of x-rays. Co-lead author Dr. William Dunn says that astronomers have seen Jupiter produce x-ray aurora for decades but didn’t know how it happened.

Previously, scientists only knew they were produced when ions crashed into the atmosphere of the planet. Thanks to the new study, they now know plasma waves transport the ions. This is the first time an explanation has been proposed despite similar processes producing aurora here on Earth. Scientists believe since similar processes are at play on earth and Jupiter, the phenomenon could be universal across many different environments in space. Jupiter produces x-ray auroras regularly at its north and south poles every 27 minutes.


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