Dancing ‘northern lights’ photographed at poles of Jupiter

23 Mar 2016

On the poles of our solar system’s gas giant, Jupiter, astronomers were able to capture a sight many of those living in the northernmost parts of Earth get to see, dancing ‘northern lights’.

Compared with the Northern Lights on Earth, however, nothing on the planet would be able to see it due to the swirling masses of gas of which it is comprised, not to mention the uninhabitable nature of it for life.

However, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers were recently able to capture a glimpse of the after-effects of a planet bombarded with enormous solar storms. This is the first time that Jupiter’s auroras have been studied in X-ray light when a giant solar storm has arrived at the planet.

To put the size of the auroras into perspective, those experienced on Jupiter are rather large in nature and up to eight-times brighter than anything seen on Earth, as well as being hundreds of times more energetic.


The images of Jupiter showing the X-ray auroras. Image via NASA/CXC/UCL/W.Dunn et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

To create the image that has been released, NASA tracked the X-rays generated following a coronal mass ejection (CME), or solar storm, for two 11-hour bouts.

In the paper published by the astronomers who were monitoring the auroras, they determined that CMEs compress the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field, shifting its boundary with the solar wind inward by more than a 1.6m km.

The multinational team will now be looking to find out how the X-rays form on Jupiter by collecting data on the planet’s magnetic field.

Jupiter illustration via Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic