We Can't Explain What's Causing Jupiter's Mysterious Aurora

Jupiter's southern aurora, as seen by Juno. G. Randy Gladstone

We mentioned earlier that at Earth, the power source of our aurorae is the solar wind, which blows over our magnetic field and acts like a giant generator. At Jupiter, however, the power source is the spin of the planet itself. All of the power comes from its rotation.

The aurorae at Jupiter’s poles are basically a signature of its attempt to spin its magnetosphere. The planet is trying to shed infinitesimal amounts of its angular momentum, powering the aurorae. This was thought to be how the planet generated its own northern and southern lights.

But the discovery of this new aurora kind of throws our models out the window. The rotation of Jupiter, acting like a generator, cannot explain how it forms. Something else must be going on. What that is, we don’t know yet.

This could have implications for studying stars and planets outside the Solar System. If there’s some completely new type of process taking place, it may suggest some intricate workings in planetary or stellar magnetic fields that we simply haven’t encountered before.

Most of the data in this paper came from Juno’s first orbits of Jupiter. The other day the spacecraft completed its eighth orbit, so scientists will be using more data to try and get to the bottom of the mysterious aurora. We already knew Jupiter was pretty weird. Now, it just got weirder.

A Hubble image of Jupiter's aurora from last year. NASA/ESA/J. Nichols (University of Leicester)
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