Small, frequent lightning storms zip across Jupiter’s cloud tops. NASA’s Juno spacecraft spotted the flashes for the first time, scientists report August 5 in Nature.
“It’s a very exotic thing that doesn’t exist on Earth,” says physicist Heidi Becker of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Previous spacecraft have revealed high-energy “superbolts” on Jupiter. That lightning originates 50 to 65 kilometers below Jupiter’s cloud tops, where liquid water droplets form. Scientists think superbolts form like lightning on Earth does: Colliding ice crystals and water droplets charge each other up, then stretch the charge between them when they separate (SN: 6/25/20).
Juno, which arrived at Jupiter in 2016, got much closer to the giant planet’s cloud tops than previous missions. Becker and her team turned the spacecraft’s navigation camera — which normally observes stars to track Juno’s position — on Jupiter’s nightside in February 2018. To the team’s surprise, the clouds crackled with electricity.
Superbolts are up to 100,000 times as strong as these small flashes. But the cloud-top lightning is 10 times as frequent. Strangely, the smaller bolts appeared to come from just 18 kilometers below the cloud tops, where it’s too cold for liquid water to exist alone.
Shallow lightning must have a different origin than the deeper lightning, Becker says. Perhaps ammonia in the upper cloud decks acts as antifreeze, creating droplets of ammonia and water combined. Juno has also seen evidence that violent storms in deeper cloud layers sometimes toss ice crystals high above where they’re normally found. When those crystals collide with the ammonia-water droplets, they may charge up and create lightning, Becker and her colleagues reason.
Similar small lightning storms may happen on other planets, including exoplanets, Becker says (SN: 5/13/16). “Every time you have a new realization, it feeds into new theories that will be developed not only for our solar system but for other solar systems.”