January 19, 2019

NASA extends Juno mission by 3 years

09 June 2018, 12:00 | Edward Lowe

A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth. via AP File

A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth.  via AP File

"We can't explain why we see almost twice the amount of lightning in the Northern Hemisphere of Jupiter than we do in the Southern Hemisphere", Brown said.

Brown revealed that, during Juno's first eight flybys of Jupiter, the spacecraft's Microwave Radiometer instrument picked up 377 lightning blasts, which "were recorded in the megahertz as well as gigahertz range" - the same as "what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions".

Together, these findings represent the most detailed and comprehensive look at Jupiter's lightning to date, and provide important clues to figuring out the complex dynamics hidden by the planet's opaque layers of stormy clouds.

"Until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by spacecraft were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range", Shannon Brown, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a lead author on the paper, said.

But there was something weird about them, compared to our Earth lightning.

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

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Scientists predicted the possibility of the existence of the so-called "Jupiter lightning" for centuries, and these predictions were confirmed in 1979.

"There is a lot of activity near Jupiter's poles but none near the equator". Many theories tried to explain the phenomenon, but none of them could ever visualize traction as the answer.

Why do lightning bolts congregate near the equator on Earth and near the poles on Jupiter?

According to Brown, Juno picked up radio signals from Jupiter's lightning in the megahertz range experienced on Earth.

The research examined how often the Juno spacecraft detected lightning on Jupiter and found out that the probe's Waves plasma and radio wave detector recorded more than 1,600 "whistlers".

Heat drives lightning, and the sun's rays cause Earth's equator to heat up more than the poles. As we have mentioned before, lightning storms on our planet are gathering around the equator, in the tropical regions, due to the moisture that is rising through the atmosphere.

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Presently, notwithstanding, Juno can hear the signs the others missed, and that implies the lightning on Jupiter is quite part like our own... yet not precisely the same. "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". It took nearly five years to reach Jupiter after a roundabout route that sent it on a flyby of Earth in 2013 to build up speed to match orbits with Jupiter. The spacecraft landed on the surface of Jupiter on 4 July 2016.

"These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation and energy flows on Jupiter", said Brown. 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.

Luckily for the scientists, NASA is extending the Juno mission through July 2021.

The decision to fund the Juno mission through fiscal year 2022 was made after an "independent panel of experts" ruled that it was on track to "achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results".

Juno's Principle investigator from the South West Research Institute, Scott Bolton, revealed in an email that the orbits are longer than expected and that is why the spacecraft needs more time to collect planned scientific measurements.

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