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Jupiter Lightning Storms Are More Similar To Earth's Than Previously Thought

Jun 07, 2018 08:16 PM EDT
Earth has more in common with gigantic neighbor Jupiter than you think. For one, their lightning strikes are amazingly similar that even scientists were surprised.
(Photo : NASA | JPL | University of Arizona)

Jupiter is worlds away from Earth, but the gigantic alien planet shares several similarities with the latter, such as lightning strikes.

Lightning flashes have been observed in Jupiter since the Voyager I in 1979, but new research shed more light on the phenomenon. In a pair of studies, scientists are saying that lightning in the giant planet may be much more familiar to Earthlings than originally believed.

Jupiter's Lightning Recurrence

The first study published in the journal Nature Astronomy focused on lightning in Jupiter, which researchers say is much more common than they initially thought possible.

Using data from the Juno spacecraft that's currently orbiting Jupiter, the scientists analyzed lightning-generated radio emissions that are dubbed as "whistlers."

The team, making use of Juno's Waves plasma and radio wave detector, discovered over 1,600 instances of lightning with peak rates of four strikes per second, Gizmodo reported. This rate and amount is six times more lightning than Voyager observed.

"Lightning at Jupiter can be as frequent as on Earth," lead author of the study Ivana Kolmašová, of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, confirmed.

Co-author of the study William Kurth, a University of Iowa space scientist, calls the similarities between thunderstorms of Jupiter and Earth "astounding," particularly since the two planets have very different atmospheres.

Lightning's Radio Frequency

Meanwhile, a second study also published in Nature examined the nature of the lightning from Jupiter further.

The previous observations of Jupiter's lightning found very low-frequency, lightning-generated radio waves compared to the radio waves of Earth's lightning. This varying radio frequency suggests that the lightning from the two planets are wildly different.

From the Juno data, researchers detected radio waves that were of much higher frequency and much closer in frequency to Earth's.

"In the data from our first eight flybys, Juno's MWR detected 377 lightning discharges," Shannon Brown, lead author of the second paper and Juno scientist, stated. "They were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range, which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions. We think the reason we are the only ones who can see it is because Juno is flying closer to the lighting than ever before, and we are searching at a radio frequency that passes easily through Jupiter's ionosphere."

The findings indicate that the nature of Jupiter and Earth lightning may not be so different after all.

Lightning-Friendly Spots In Jupiter

Not everything is the same, however. In Jupiter, lightning occurs mostly near the poles and is more common in the northern hemisphere. As Jupiter produces lightning through electrical reactions between ice and water droplets, the lightning's location suggests that the water-filled gas in the atmosphere circulates toward the poles.

"That distribution of lightning is kind of upside-down from what we'd expect on Earth," Kurth, who also co-authors the second study, explained. "On Earth, thunderstorms tend to cluster around low latitudes, and on Jupiter, it's the other way around."

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