Planetary astronomers used measurements taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter as well as data from ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Earth-orbiting XMM-Newton mission to finally uncover a 40-year-old mystery about the origins of Jupiter’s unusual X-ray auroras. These electrically charged atoms, or ions, responsible for the X-rays are essentially electromagnetic waves in Jupiter’s magnetic field traveling down into the gas giant’s atmosphere. Read more for a video and additional information.
Unlike auroras seen on other planets, Jupiter’s X-ray auroras exist poleward of the main auroral belt and pulsate, while those at the north pole are often different from those at the south pole. Astronomers and scientists discovered that fluctuations of Jupiter’s magnetic field caused the pulsating X-ray auroras. That’s right, the magnetic field’s outer boundary is hit directly by the particles of the solar wind and compressed. These compressions heat ions that are trapped in Jupiter’s extensive magnetic field, thus triggering a phenomenon called electromagnetic ion cyclotron (EMIC) waves. These ions then ride the EMIC wave across millions of miles of space, eventually hitting the planet’s atmosphere, resulting in the X-ray auroras.
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What we see in the Juno data is this beautiful chain of events. We see the compression happen, we see the EMIC wave triggered, we see the ions, and then we see a pulse of ions traveling along the field line. Then, a few minutes later, XMM sees a burst of X-rays,” said William Dunn of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, and a co-author of the paper.