Massive Stellar Storms Ignite Spectacular ‘Northern Lights’ Above Jupiter

Scientists have captured massive solar storms sparking a jaw-dropping display of stunning X-ray “auroras” on Jupiter’s north pole. These auroras are believed to be eight times brighter than normal and hundreds of times more powerful than Earth’s own “aurora borealis.” A new study led by researchers from the University College London (UCL) employing NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory spotted this spectacular event.

The study is believed to be the first of its kind studying Jupiter’s X-ray aurora in light of the colossal solar-radiation storms penetrating the planet’s magnetosphere. According to William Dunn from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, the study would enable scientists to further probe Jupiter’s magnetosphere and the sun’s prodigious influence on it.

“There’s a constant power struggle between the solar wind and Jupiter’s magnetosphere. We want to understand this interaction and what effect it has on the planet. By studying how the aurora changes, we can discover more about the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field, and if or how this is influenced by the Sun. Understanding this relationship is important for the countless magnetic objects across the galaxy, including exoplanets, brown dwarfs, and neutron stars,”


A clearer picture of the relationship between the sun and Jupiter’s magnetosphere could be emerging soon according to leading experts. NASA’s Juno spacecraft is scheduled to ascend into orbit around Jupiter this July and attempt to explore Jupiter’s magnetic field in particular.

We know from research that there is a continuously violent outflow of charged particles into space from the sun from time to time, sometimes in the form of giant storms known as coronal mass ejections — CME. These generate strong solar winds interacting with Jupiter’s magnetosphere, a colossal formation in the solar system massive enough to accommodate Jupiter’s many moons.

Scientists have long been acquainted with Jupiter’s ubiquitous northern and southern lights, far more luminous and intense compared to those of Earth. These massive sources of energy are powered by both electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with Jupiter’s magnetic field as well as a periodic interaction between Jupiter and many of its moons. These interactions produce an enchanting display of “auroral” explosions on the planet, captured beautifully this time by NASA’s X-Ray observatory.

Image: NASA
Jupiter (Image: NASA)

According to astrophysicist Graziella Branduardi-Raymont, these observations can help scientists further speculate on how solar winds impact planet Earth.

“Comparing new findings from Jupiter with what is already known for Earth will help explain how space weather is driven by the solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. New insights into how Jupiter’s atmosphere is influenced by the sun will help us characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets, giving us clues about whether a planet is likely to support life as we know it,”

Solar storms occur when the sun releases massive bursts of energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These phenomena send a stream of electrical charges and magnetic fields toward the planets at a velocity of nearly 3 million miles per hour.

The impact of solar storms on Jupiter’s aurora was tracked by monitoring the X-rays emitted during two 11-hour observations back in 2011 when an interplanetary coronal mass ejection event was recorded and massive stellar matter was projected to strike the giant planet’s magnetosphere. Scientists used the data collected to build a “3-D spherical image” to isolate the source of the X-ray activity and identify areas to probe further at different intervals.

Last year, observations of the planet’s extreme ultraviolet emissions revealed that the mighty explosions of Jupiter’s aurora most likely occur as a consequence of the planet’s interaction with its moons. On Earth, however, the fascinatingly radiant patterns and formations of the Northern Lights or “aurora borealis” are typically produced by solar wind-driven electrons and protons that penetrate the Earth’s magnetosphere. Accelerating along the planet’s magnetic field, they disperse into the atmosphere and collide with surrounding gases.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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