NASA detects unexpected lightning storms in Jupiter's upper atmosphere

Some of the most extreme weather in the Solar System just got stranger.

rendering of storms on Jupiter

Illustration uses data obtained by NASA's Juno mission to depict high-altitude electrical storms on Jupiter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt
  • The Juno space probe orbiting Jupiter has observed lightning at impossibly high points in the Jovian atmosphere.
  • The findings, combined with other atmopsheric data, led to the creation of a new model of the atmosphere.
  • The findings answer a few questions about Jupiter, but create many more.

Since 2016, NASA's Juno spacecraft has been observing Jupiter's atmosphere, magnetosphere, and gravitational field. It has already managed to take fantastic images, discovered new cyclones, and analyze the gasses that make up the planet in the time it has spent investigating it.

This week, Juno was able to add another discovery to its name with the unexpected finding of lightning in the upper atmosphere of the Solar System's largest planet.

The findings are described in the study "Small lightning flashes from shallow electrical storms on Jupiter," published in Nature. Previous missions to Jupiter, including Voyager 1, Galileo, and New Horizons all observed lightning, but without the benefits of the equipment on Juno or more recent developments in models of the Jovian atmosphere.

In this case, the lighting is notable for how high it is occurring in the atmosphere. While previous observations suggested lightning in water-based clouds deep inside the gas planet, the new data suggests lightning exists in the upper atmosphere in clouds of water and ammonia. This lightning is dubbed "shallow lightning."

According to a press release by Cornell University, the ammonia is vital in creating the lightning, as it functions as an "anti-freeze" of sorts to keep the water in the clouds from freezing. The collision of droplets of mixed ammonia and water with ice water particles creates the charge needed for lightning strikes.

This is different from any process that creates lightning on Earth.

That wasn't the only bit of strangeness the probe noticed. While Juno saw plenty of ammonia near the equator and at lower levels of the atmosphere, it was hard-pressed to find much anywhere else. To explain this, researchers developed a new model of atmospheric mixing. They suggest that the ammonia at lower levels of the atmosphere rises into storm clouds, interacts with water to cause the aforementioned lightning, and then falls back down in the form of hailstones.

The scientists gave these ammonia and water ice hailstones the name "mushballs."

This model explains many things, including why Juno couldn't detect ammonia where it expected to: the mushballs would be more challenging to detect than ammonia or water vapor. The scientists further speculated that the weight of the mushballs pulls the ammonia to lower levels of the atmosphere where it is detected in more significant amounts.

A NASA designed graphic demonstrating the weather systems theorized to create "mushballs." The liquid water and ammonia rises in the storm clouds until they reach points where the extremely low temperatures cause them to freeze. Freezing into semi-solid "mushballs" causes them to fall where they redistribute ammonia throughout the lower atmosphere.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/CNRS

How can we possibly know all of this?

Juno relies on several pieces of equipment. The most relevant in this case is the microwave radiometer. This device uses microwaves to measure the Jovian atmosphere's composition. When microwaves hit water or ammonia particles, they begin to heat up. By hitting the planet with microwaves and then looking for changes in the particles' observed temperature, the probe can determine what chemicals are present.

The findings of these studies demonstrate that Jupiter's atmosphere is more complicated than previously thought. Given how we already knew about the storms larger than Earth, temperatures that swing between extremes in different layers of the atmosphere, and winds that blow at 100 meters per second, that is saying something.

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

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