News and Commentary

Video: Hubble Captures Jupiter’s Incredible Northern Lights Show

On July 4th, NASA’s Juno spacecraft — “a 400 pound box of reinforced titanium strapped to a 66 foot-long solar panel” — will make its way into orbit around Jupiter and finally give humanity a peek under the gas giant’s upper atmosphere. Juno’s year-and-a-half long mission includes mapping Jupiter’s magnetic field, studying its interaction with the solar wind, and determining the origin of these incredible auroras.

In 1979, the Voyager spacecraft first noticed Jupiter’s beautiful northern light display but scientists are saying that lately they’ve been more magnificent than usual. According to The Atlantic, “Researchers are matching up ultraviolet imagery taken by the Hubble telescope with data from spacecraft Juno, which is set to enter Jupiter’s orbit next week. Their goal is to better understand how the solar wind affects the planet’s auroras.” (video above)

Below is timelapse footage of the action through Hubble’s ultraviolet lens:

Jupiter’s auroras caused by the gas giant’s enormous magnetic field reeling in charged particles from the solar wind. The magnetic field is so large that scientists say “if it were visible to the naked eye, it would appear from Earth to be the same size as the sun even though it’s five times farther away.”

Some of the lights also come from charged particles by way of Jupiter’s volcano laiden moon, Io. “The gravitational tension between Jupiter and Io causes volcanic reactions on the moon, which then spews bursts of electrically charged atoms into space, further feeding Jupiter’s auroras.”

“These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen,” said Jonathan Nichols, an astronomist at the University of Leicester, in a statement on Thursday. “It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno.”

Scientists hope that in the coming months, Juno will be sending back more vital data to help unravel the mechanics of these amazing lights.