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Scientists solve 40-year mystery over Jupiter's X-ray aurora

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A research team co-led by UCL has solved a decades-old mystery as to how Jupiter produces a spectacular burst of X-rays every few minutes.
Overlaid images of Jupiter's pole from NASA's satellite Juno and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope. Left shows a projection of Jupiter's Northern X-ray aurora (purple) overlaid on a visible Junocam image of the North Pole. Right shows the Southern counterpart. Credit: NASA Chandra/Juno Wolk/Dunn



The X-rays are part of Jupiter's aurora—bursts of visible and invisible light that occur when charged particles interact with the planet's atmosphere. A similar phenomenon occurs on Earth, creating the northern lights, but Jupiter's is much more powerful, releasing hundreds of gigawatts of energy, enough to briefly power all of human civilization.

In a new study, published in Science Advances, researchers combined close-up observations of Jupiter's environment by NASA's satellite Juno, which is currently orbiting the planet, with simultaneous X-ray measurements from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory (which is in Earth's own orbit).

The research team, led by UCL and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, discovered that X-ray flares were triggered by periodic vibrations of Jupiter's magnetic field lines. These vibrations create waves of plasma (ionized gas) that send heavy ion particles "surfing" along magnetic field lines until they smash into the planet's atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of X-rays.

Co-lead author Dr. William Dunn (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory) said: "We have seen Jupiter producing X-ray aurora for four decades, but we didn't know how this happened. We only knew they were produced when ions crashed into the planet's atmosphere.

"Now we know these ions are transported by plasma waves—an explanation that has not been proposed before, even though a similar process produces Earth's own aurora. It could, therefore, be a…
Science X staff
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