Jupiter’s version of the Northern Lights went wild when a large solar storm hit the giant planet in October 2011, new research has revealed.

A team of scientists, led by William Dunn at UCL‘s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, discovered that the planet’s X-ray aurora flared at eight times its usual intensity when it was hit by a large interplanetary coronal mass ejection (CME) and intense solar winds. The researchers studied the interaction using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a space-based telescope currently in a high elliptical orbit around the Earth.

Jupiter’s polar auroras were first discovered by the Voyager spacecraft in 1979. They are different to Earth’s Northern Lights in that they are not visible to the naked eye, and they’re active nearly all the time. They occur when the electrical charge generated by the planet’s rotation pulls charged particles – including material from Io, Jupiter’s volcanic moon – into the atmosphere at nearly the speed of light.

The new research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Science – Space Physics, demonstrated that solar winds can influence the speed and intensity of this process.

This is a timely discovery, as NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently approaching Jupiter to conduct research on the planet’s origins. Part of its mission is to learn more about how the largest planet in the Solar System is affected by the Sun’s activity.


Source: Dunn, W. R., et al. (2016), The impact of an ICME on the Jovian X-ray aurora, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 121, doi:10.1002/2015JA021888.