NASA’s Juno mission may have found lightning sprites in the atmosphere of Jupiter

Shane McGlaun - Nov 1, 2020, 9:42am CST
NASA’s Juno mission may have found lightning sprites in the atmosphere of Jupiter

There’s an electrical phenomenon that occurs here on Earth above thunderstorms known as sprites. Here on Earth, the sprites are typically red. NASA scientists pouring over the data from the Juno mission recently announced that they have discovered sprites in the clouds of Jupiter for the first time. Rather than being red like the sprites on Earth, on Jupiter, they’re blue.

For those unfamiliar, a lightning sprite is a brief but very powerful electrical discharge that happens high in Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists refer to them as transient luminous events or TLEs. They’re challenging to capture on film since they are so briefly viewable. For many years scientists debated whether or not the phenomenon occurred on Earth.

NASA discovered sprites in the Jovian atmosphere that are rapidly expanding regions shaped like a disc that glow for less than a thousandth of a second. They occur in the turbulent upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Scientists have theorized that sprites, or another phenomenon known as elves, should happen in the Jovian atmosphere. However, this is the first time evidence that they exist has been found.

Juno was able to make its discovery thanks to its ultraviolet spectrograph instrument. In the summer of 2019, scientists studied those images and found a narrow, bright streak of ultraviolet light that scientists determined was a Sprite. The scientists also discovered that in UV light, Jupiter had an Aurora in addition to the sprite scientists found.

Researchers poured through all of the data taken over four years of the mission and found a total of 11 flashes, all with very similar properties. The research is in the early stages, so scientists aren’t sure how common sprites are on Jupiter. However, finding the first examples is a significant discovery. The sprites were discovered in a region of Jupiter where lightning is known to exist.


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