Solar activity can prompt a massive increase in the intensity of Jupiter's polar aurorae, according to a new study drawing on data collected by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Charged particles from a powerful solar storm were observed creating an impressive light show as they struck the Jovian planet in October 2011.
Jupiter's aurorae differ from those observed taking place in Earth's atmosphere. Aside from being far more powerful, they are capable of being generated by Jupiter without the aid of any outside influence. As the gas giant spins on its axis roughly once every 10 hours, Jupiter drags its magnetic field with it.
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This process generates around 10 million volts, creating charged particles that interact with Jupiter's atmosphere to create constant aurorae. Jupiter's satellite Io has also been observed to influence the Jovian planet's aurorae by introducing copious amounts of sulfur and oxygen ions into Jupiter's atmosphere.
The new study has revealed that alongside these factors, powerful solar activity can act as the catalyst for significant X-ray aurorae. As powerful solar storms, or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), intensify the solar winds pervading the solar system, they interact with Jupiter's magnetosphere.
The research reveals that the powerful winds have the ability to shift the boundary of the gas giant's magnetosphere back by as much as a million miles, creating a stunning X-ray aurora in the process that is observable by the powerful X-ray capabilities of the Chandra telescope. In the case of the October 2011 event, solar activity was seen to elevate the intensity of Jupiter's aurorae up to eight times their usual levels.
The image at the top of the page represents a composite utilizing X-ray data collected by the Chandra telescope overlayed onto an optical light image snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope. The images were captured as the storm arrived at Jupiter (left), and two days later (right) as the gas giant's magnetosphere returned to its ordinary aspect via two 11-hour observation periods.
Future observations will make use of the Chandra telescope as well as ESA's XMN-Newton observatory in order to further unravel the secrets of Jupiter's magnetic properties.