In 2011, scientists watched as a huge burst of plasma burped from the sun crashed into Jupiter, sparking intense auroras on the giant planet.
Those auroras — which were eight times brighter than usual — marked the first time researchers directly observed X-ray auroras on Jupiter triggered by a solar storm, according to a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Space Physics on Tuesday.
Wind from the sun is constantly slamming into Jupiter, disturbing its magnetosphere along the way.
That disturbance can affect the auroras of the planet, according to the new research, so studying them allows scientists to learn more about how the sun influences the largest planet in the solar system.
Jupiter’s auroras were seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a telescope that looks at the universe in X-ray, not visible light.
Scientists used Chandra to make these observations over the course of 11 hours in October 2011 and then built a 3D model that showed the X-ray emissions.
While these auroras were very strong in X-ray, it’s possible they could also be seen in visible light under the right conditions.
“Any X-ray aurora would also emit at other wavelengths,” John Clarke, a scientist unaffiliated with the new study, told Mashable via email.
“You could measure the UV [ultraviolet] emission anywhere, but visible light that our eyes could see would only be apparent on the night side of the planet (the reflected sunlight on the day side would be too bright to see the aurora),” he said.
The auroras on Earth (sometimes called the northern or southern lights) are also produced when particles from the sun slam into the planet’s magnetic field.
Those particles are pulled toward the planet’s poles where some of them make it into the upper atmosphere, exciting neutral particles and causing them to glow in greens, red and purples.
Jupiter’s auroras aren’t just sparked by the sun, however.
“The main Jovian aurora, at lower latitudes, and mainly ultraviolet, is NOT affected by solar activity/storms or solar wind variations but is driven by Jupiter’s rotation and the movement of the magnetospheric plasma with this rotation,” astronomer Tom Cravens, who did not participate in the new study, told Mashable.
This new study will also help scientists working with the Juno spacecraft, which should arrive at Jupiter in July.
The spacecraft is, in part, designed to gather more data about the relationship between Jupiter and the sun, so having more information about the way solar storms can disrupt the planet’s magnetosphere is essential to finding out more about that.
“Understanding this relationship is important for the countless magnetic objects across the galaxy, including exoplanets, brown dwarfs and neutron stars,” Dunn said.
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