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Research reveals solar storms trigger Jupiters Northern Lights

Solar storms trigger Jupiter’s intense ‘Northern Lights’ by generating a new X-ray aurora that is eight times brighter than normal and hundreds of times more energetic than Earth’s aurora borealis, finds new research, involving the University of Leicester, using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Dr Jon Nichols from our Department of Physics and Astronomy worked on the study, which has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

It is the first time that Jupiter’s X-ray aurora has been studied when a giant storm from the Sun has arrived at the planet. The dramatic findings complement NASA’s Juno mission this summer which aims to understand the relationship between the two biggest structures in the solar system – the region of space controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field (i.e. its magnetosphere) and that controlled by the solar wind.

The Sun constantly ejects streams of particles into space in the solar wind. When giant storms erupt, the winds become much stronger and compress Jupiter’s magnetosphere, shifting its boundary with the solar wind two million kilometres through space. The study found that this interaction at the boundary triggers the high energy X-rays in Jupiter’s Northern Lights, which cover an area bigger than the surface of the Earth.

The impact of solar storms on Jupiter’s aurora was tracked by monitoring the X-rays emitted during two 11 hour observations in October 2011 when an interplanetary coronal mass ejection was predicted to reach the planet from the Sun. The scientists used the data collected to build a 3D spherical image to pinpoint the source of the X-ray activity and identify areas to investigate further at different time points.

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