Strange X-ray Auroras Seen Pulsating at Jupiter’s Poles

Normally, massive gassy planets do not produce any X-rays, but new research on the poles of Jupiter show the colossal giant is an exception. The question now is how the planet does this—and why?

Observations from European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA space telescopes revealed that Jupiter does emit X-rays into its atmosphere, which cause eerily beautiful auroras above the planet's poles, similar to the aurora borealis found on Earth. This comes as a surprise since its neighbor and fellow gas giant planet, Saturn, does not.  

Even stranger is that each pole pulses at completely different and, at times, erratic frequencies, something that has not ever been observed in a planet before. According to the new study, published online in Nature Astronomy, the auroras on the southern pole pulse consistently every 11 minutes, while the auroras on the northern pole flare up without warning or consistency.

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“These auroras don’t seem to act in unison like those that we’re often familiar with here on Earth,” said lead author William Dunn of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK, and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA, in a recent statement, alluding to how Earth’s poles often tend to mirror each other. “We thought the activity would be coordinated through Jupiter’s magnetic field, but the behavior we found is really puzzling.”

10_31_lights The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, are caused by particles from the sun colliding with particles in Earth’s atmosphere. OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images

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Auroras are caused by streams of electrically charged particles that collide with a planet’s atmosphere. On Earth, this occurs when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate our planet’s magnetic field and collide with molecules in our atmosphere. While we understand how this is accomplished on Earth, the feat is far less clear on Jupiter.

“Charged particles have to hit Jupiter’s atmosphere at exceptionally fast speeds in order to generate the X-ray pulses that we’ve seen. We don’t yet understand what processes cause this, but these observations tell us that they act independently in the northern and southern hemispheres,” added Licia Ray, from Lancaster University, UK, and a co-author in a statement.

According to the study, these findings are a breakthrough in what we know about space and can completely change scientists' understanding of how cosmic bodies produce auroras.

The good news is we likely won’t have to wait long to learn more about Jupiter’s auroras as the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) is planned to arrive at the planet by 2029. This is a spacecraft that will spend at least three years making detailed observations of Jupiter and its three largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The spacecraft will tell us more about Jupiter’s auras and help us solve many other mysteries of the giant gas planet in an effort to better understand our neighbors here in the Milky Way galaxy and, one day, even those farther away. 

"A main aspect for me is that 'our' planets are the nearby examples of a huge population of exoplanets," study co-author Norbert Schartel from the ESA told Newsweek in an email. "And only here we can observe many things [that] will be important to understand the exoplanets."

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