Astronomers Spot ‘Killer’ Electron Waves Coming From Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede

Jupiter's largest moon gives off 'tremendous' electromagnetic waves that could spell trouble for future spacecraft explorations.

3D illustration of Jupiter's moon Ganymede.
mr.Timmi / Shutterstock

Jupiter's largest moon gives off 'tremendous' electromagnetic waves that could spell trouble for future spacecraft explorations.

The magnetic fields around our planets are traversed by electromagnetic waves, which produce the stunning light shows known as auroras. Also referred to as chorus waves, these electromagnetic waves occur at very low frequencies and can be converted to sound to give an intimate audition of what happens around our planets in space.

For instance, listening to Earth’s electromagnetic waves “is almost like listening to singing and chirping birds at dawn with a crackling camp fire nearby,” notes the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).

But the same waves that create the beautiful polar lights are also responsible for the damage caused to orbiting satellites, inflicted by their high-energy “killer” electrons.

Still, the chorus waves of our planet don’t hold a candle to those emitted by Jupiter, reveals a new study conducted by an international team of researchers from Germany, the U.S., and the U.K.

The scientists looked at data from NASA’s Galileo mission, which journeyed into Jupiter’s system between 1996 and 2003, performing a string of flybys of the gas giant and its moons. After analyzing the wave environment around Jupiter, the researchers were stunned to discover that two of the gas giant’s moons have incredibly powerful chorus waves.

In a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, the team documents that Jupiter’s moon Europa emits chorus waves 100 times stronger than the average detected around other planets in the solar system.

Meanwhile, Ganymede is even more puzzling. Jupiter’s largest moon gives off electromagnetic waves 1 million times more intense than those of your average planet.

“Chorus waves have been detected in space around the Earth, but they are nowhere near as strong as the waves at Jupiter,” says study co-author Prof. Richard Horne of the British Antarctic Survey.

What’s Up With Ganymede?

The team believes that these perplexing findings could be put down to the fact that both Europa and Ganymede orbit inside Jupiter’s massive magnetic field. As you would expect, the largest planet in our solar system has the biggest magnetic field of all the planets — 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth.

On top of that, Ganymede has its own magnetic field generated within that of Jupiter, as revealed by a previous study of the 20-year-old Galileo data, the Inquisitr reported in early May.

According to the new research, this could explain why the chorus waves coming from Jupiter’s moon are so much more intense than anywhere else.

“It’s a really surprising and puzzling observation showing that a moon with a magnetic field can create such a tremendous intensification in the power of waves,” said study lead author Prof. Yuri Shprits, affiliated with both the GFZ/University of Potsdam and the University of California in Los Angeles.

Why Is This Relevant?

Well, for starters, these destructive electron waves, which around Ganymede are intensified a million-fold, might wreak havoc on spacecraft sent to conduct science observations in Jupiter’s system.

Even Earth’s less powerful chorus waves have been known to ruff up our satellites, so imagine what Ganymede’s “killer waves” could do.

On top of that, they “may have a pronounced effect” on the particles in Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the researchers write in their paper.

“Even if a small portion of these waves escapes the immediate vicinity of Ganymede, they will be capable of accelerating particles to very high energies and ultimately producing very fast electrons inside Jupiter’s magnetic field,” states Prof. Horne.

Studying these waves in more detail could help us find out “how objects with an internal magnetic field,” such as Ganymede, “can interact with particles trapped in magnetic fields of larger scale objects,” concludes the study.