A research team led by the University of California has solved a decades-old mystery about how Jupiter produces an astonishing burst of X-rays every few minutes.
X-rays are part of Jupiter’s aurora, which are bursts of visible and invisible light that occur when charged particles interact with the planet’s atmosphere.
A similar phenomenon occurs on Earth, where the Northern Lights occur, but Jupiter is much more powerful, releasing hundreds of gigawatts of energy, enough to power human civilization for a brief period.
In a new study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers combined close-up observations of Jupiter’s environment by NASA’s Juno satellite, which is currently orbiting the planet, with simultaneous X-ray measurements from the XMM-Newton Observatory. , of the European Space Agency (located in Earth orbit).
The research team, led by World University London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, discovered that the X-ray flares were caused by periodic vibrations of Jupiter’s magnetic field lines.
These vibrations create waves of plasma (ionized gas) that send heavy ionic particles “surfing” along magnetic field lines until they collide with the planet’s atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of X-rays.
Co-lead author Dr. William Dunn says: ‘We’ve seen Jupiter produce X-ray auroras for 4 decades, but we didn’t know how this happened, we only knew that it was produced when ions crashed into the planet’s atmosphere.
He adds: “We now know that these ions are transported by plasma waves, an explanation that has not been proposed before, although a similar process produces Earth’s aurora borealis, and thus, could be a global phenomenon, present across many different environments in space.” .
X-ray auroras occur at Jupiter’s north and south poles, often with a regular clock movement, and during the study’s observations, Jupiter was producing bursts of X-rays every 27 minutes.
Particles of charged ions that strike the atmosphere arise from volcanic gas flowing into space from giant volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io.
This gas is ionized (its atoms are stripped of electrons) due to collisions in Jupiter’s immediate environment, forming a doughnut of plasma that surrounds the planet.
Co-lead author Zhonghua Yao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, says: ‘Now we have identified this fundamental process, there is a wealth of possibilities for where it can be studied next. Different types of charged particles.
“X-rays are usually produced by very powerful and violent phenomena such as black holes and neutron stars, so it seems strange that just planets produce them as well,” says Graziella Brandoardi-Raymont of the UCLA Space Science Laboratory and co-author of the study.
“We can never visit black holes, but Jupiter is on our doorstep, and with the Juno satellite reaching Jupiter’s orbit, astronomers now have a fantastic opportunity to study an environment that produces X-rays up close.”
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