By: April Carson
Scientists have discovered a 10 Earth-sized heatwave rippling through Jupiter's atmosphere.
It was 130,000 kilometers (around 81,000 miles) across and scorching at 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit), moving at speeds of up to 2,400 meters per second away from the Jovian north pole.
This, scientists claim, could explain one of the Solar System's most perplexing mysteries - why it is so much hotter than anticipated.
It's possible that the wavy, colorful lights at Jupiter's poles are caused by the auroras that glimmer permanently on Earth. These energy-generating capabilities were previously thought to exist only in fantasy.
"Last year, we produced the first maps of Jupiter's upper atmosphere capable of identifying the major heat sources," says Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronomer James O'Donoghue about his team's accomplishment.
"We were able to show that Jupiter's auroras might be responsible for these temperatures thanks to these maps."
The first evidence that something was wrong in Jupiter's atmosphere came to light in the 1970s, roughly 50 years ago.
At that time, the planet's temperatures were observed to be hotter than what should be possible given the amount of sunlight it receives.
The heat source remained a mystery for decades, until now.
Jupiter is significantly farther from the Sun than Earth; in reality, five times the distance. Consequently, it only receives four percent of the solar radiation that reaches Earth.
On average, its upper atmosphere should be around -73 degrees Celsius (-99 degrees Fahrenheit), but instead it's at approximately 420 degrees Celsius— comparable to Earth's upper atmosphere. Additionally, this temperature is much higher than can be blamed on solar heating alone.
The 1970s saw the launch of two space probes, Pioneer 10 and 11, that each carried a small infrared telescope. As they flew past Jupiter, these telescopes recorded simultaneous measurements of the planet's temperature at different depths in its atmosphere.
What these measurements revealed was that, for some reason, Jupiter's temperatures were much higher than they should be— especially at depths where the solar radiation couldn't penetrate.
The data collected by these various climate-monitoring satellites have revealed a huge amount of heat, suggesting that something unusual is happening on Jupiter. The most powerful auroras in the Solar System, blazing in wavelengths invisible to the human eye, crown Jupiter. We also know that Earth's auroras cause significant heating of our own atmosphere. Could it be that Jupiter's auroras are doing something similar?
Jupiter's auroras are produced in a similar way to Earth's- from the interaction between charged particles, magnetic fields, and molecules. But they look very different from our own. Earthauroras form when gusts of particles are blown in on powerful solar winds. They can be quite unpredictable since they rely on that sporadic input.
The auroras on Jupiter are permanent, generated by particles from its moon Io, which is the Solar System's most volcanically active object and spews sulfur dioxide all the time. This encircles Jupiter in a plasma torus that is guided to its poles via magnetic field lines and rains down into the atmosphere. And since Jupiter is much bigger than Earth, so are its auroras.
And there it is - the aurora. Previous heat maps of Jupiter showed hotspots directly below the oval, suggesting a connection between them.
But then things got more interesting. The Io's contribution doesn't mean that the Sun has no auroral heating, and this is what O'Donoghue and his colleagues observed.
As they were collecting observations of Jupiter and its strange temperatures, a dense solar wind hit Jupiter head-on. As expected, the team saw an enhancement to the aurora when this happened.
But the really strange thing was that, even though the solar wind was coming from the Sun, the aurora's hot spots were not in line with it. Instead, they were shifted to one side.
The researchers believe that this is because of Jupiter's magnetosphere - the region around Jupiter where charged particles are influenced by its magnetic field.
This is probably what caused the heat wave to spill out of the auroral oval and roll down towards the equator at speeds up to thousands of kilometers per hour as it spread. As a result, this would have added a significant amount of energy to the Jovian atmosphere while it was spreading.
The heat waves, on the other hand, are "energy events" that provide an additional significant energy source while the auroras continuously distribute heat to the rest of Earth.
These findings give us more information about Jupiter's upper-atmospheric weather and climate, which will be very helpful in trying to solve the 'energy crisis' problem that research into the giant planets is facing.
We now know that Jupiter has two main sources of energy that help to heat its atmosphere – the sun and the heat waves. But we still don't know how exactly these two energy sources interact with each other to create the Jovian weather patterns that we see today.
Not only is Jupiter hotter than it should be, but Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus are as well. All of these planets are hundreds of degrees hotter than what solar heating can account for.
Although the other planets' auroras aren't as big as Jupiter's, this discovery gives us a new perspective that could help answer some of the questions we have.
This heatwave is just one more example of the strange and wonderful things that Jupiter has to offer. It's a planet that is full of surprises, and we can't wait to see what else we might find.
This latest discovery has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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