(CNN) – The aurora borealis is the greatest light show on Earth and dazzles those lucky enough to see them in the northern regions of our planet
It’s a phenomenon common to other planets in our solar system, including the largest, Jupiter, which is bathed in stunning color at its poles.
Jupiter’s northern lights, characterized by massive X-ray pulsations, were first discovered 40 years ago. Astronomers have long tried to explain the mechanism behind these aurora borealis, so much so that NASA named them “strong puzzle“.
“It’s unimaginably more powerful[than Earth]and much more complex,” said William Dunn, a researcher at Jupiter’s Laboratory. “Jupiter’s northern lights contain these bright glows that can amount to a terawatt of energy that would fuel an entire civilization.” Mullard of Astronomy from University College London.
This researcher is part of an international team of scientists who claim to have solved this 40-year-old puzzle.
By combining notes and data from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched in 2016, and The European Space Agency’s X-ray Telescope, Researchers have discovered that the pulsating X-ray aurora is caused by fluctuations in Jupiter’s magnetic field.
“Perhaps the reason it has remained a mystery for 40 years is that we haven’t had that opportunity,” Dunn said. “We didn’t have the amazing, amazing Juno spacecraft and also the X-ray telescope in Earth orbit.”
The research was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
On Earth, auroras are caused primarily by the solar wind, that is, particles emitted during solar storms that flow through space and pass through the Earth’s magnetosphere, creating a colorful light show.
Dunn said there are other factors at play on Jupiter.
Jupiter rotates much faster than Earth and has the strongest magnetic field of all the planets in our solar system. Also, the third Jupiter’s largest moon, Io, covered by more than 400 active volcanoes, which pump volcanic material into Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the region controlled by the planet’s magnetic field.
“The northern lights are basically a video of what’s going on in the magnetosphere,” Dunn explained.
Jupiter’s X-ray flares were first discovered in 1979, Dunn added, baffling scientists because these phenomena have often been associated with more exotic space objects such as black holes and neutron stars.
Thanks to simultaneous observations of Juno and the MM-Newton X-ray telescope, Dunn and colleagues were able to correlate the X-ray pulses, which occur at regular intervals, with Jupiter’s aurora borealis.
“Jupiter produces a burst of X-rays every 27 minutes. That gave us fingerprints. We knew Jupiter did this every 27 minutes, so we can look at Juno’s data to see what processes are also taking place at that frequency.”
What they found is that as Jupiter rotates, it carries with it its magnetic field, which hits directly with solar wind particles and is compressed. These pressures heat up the particles, electrically charged atoms called ions, which get trapped in Jupiter’s magnetic field. This leads to a phenomenon called electromagnetic ion cyclotron (EMIC), the researchers said.
Guided by Jupiter’s magnetic field, the ions surf through the EMIC wave and end up colliding with the planet’s poles, resulting in X-ray auroras.
Dunn said the research team’s next step will be to find out if this process is unique to Jupiter or if it occurs on other planets, even outside our solar system.