WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Beneath the brown clouds of ammonia that blanket Jupiter are clouds that look like water on Earth. And just like on Earth, lightning is often generated within these clouds – an eerie sight spotted by various spacecraft that have visited the largest planet in our solar system, including NASA’s Juno probe.
The data obtained by Juno provide new information about how lightning operations on Jupiter are similar to those on Earth despite the huge differences between the two planets, according to scientists.
Earth is a relatively small, rocky world. Named for his lightning bolts by the ancient Roman god, Jupiter is a gas giant so massive that all the other planets in our solar system could fit neatly inside it—including more than 1,300 terrestrial ones.
Drawing on five years of high-resolution data obtained by the Juno radio receiver as the spacecraft orbited Jupiter, the researchers found that lightning initiations on the planet pulsate at a similar rhythm to those observed within clouds on our planet. The pulsations observed on Jupiter as flashes of lightning began at about millisecond intervals, similar to thunderstorms on Earth.
Lightning is the most powerful naturally occurring electrical source on Earth.
“Lightning is an electric discharge that starts inside thunderclouds. Particles of ice and water inside the cloud are charged by collisions and form layers of particles with the same polar charge,” said planetary scientist Ivana Kolmásová of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Prague, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
“Through this process, a huge electric field is created and a discharge can be initiated. This explanation is somewhat simplistic because scientists are still not entirely sure what exactly is going on inside thunderclouds,” she added.
The presence of lightning on Jupiter was confirmed when telltale radio emissions at audible frequencies were recorded in 1979 by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft as it ventured through the solar system.
Other gaseous planets in the solar system – Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – have also been shown to have lightning. There is some evidence of lightning in the rocky clouds of Venus, although it is still a matter of debate.
Other studies have described other similarities in lightning processes on Jupiter and Earth. For example, lightning rates on the two planets are similar even though the distribution of lightning on Jupiter is different than on Earth.
“On Earth, the tropics are the most active. The majority of Jovian lightning occurs in mid-latitudes and also in the polar regions. We have almost no lightning activity near the poles on Earth. This means that the formation conditions for thunderclouds are likely to be very different between Jovian and Earth “.
“There have been some attempts to compare the power of lightning based on photometric measurements, and it has been concluded that lightning on Jupiter may be similar to the most powerful lightning on Earth,” Kolmasova added, noting that further analysis is planned.
Jupiter is made primarily of hydrogen and helium, with traces of other gases. Stripes and a few storms dominate the colorful appearance of Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun and about 88,850 miles (143,000 km) in diameter.
Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, obtaining information about its atmosphere, internal structure, internal magnetic field, and surrounding area created by its internal magnetism.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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