NASA’s Juno spacecraft just captured images of colourful bursts of lightning-like electricity high in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
These phenomena, which include jellyfish-shaped ‘sprites’ and glowing disks called ‘elves’, also occur high up in Earth’s atmosphere during thunderstorms.
They were first documented in 1989. Scientists predicted that other planets that have lightning, like Jupiter, would also produce these transient luminous events.
But nobody had ever seen alien sprites or elves until now.
Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 and collecting images of its aurorae in ultraviolet light. A team of researchers processing those snapshots recently noticed something odd.
“In the process of putting together those images, we noticed that very occasionally we saw these surprising, short-lived, bright flashes,” Rohini Giles, a researcher on the Juno team, said in a press conference on Tuesday, during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Association’s Division for Planetary Sciences.
“We then went and searched through all of the data that we’ve taken over four years of the mission and we found a total of 11 flashes all with very similar properties,” she added.
Each of these outbursts lasted just a few milliseconds.
Giles’ team published a new study on these flashes in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on Tuesday.
On Earth, sprites appear as long, red tendrils, sometimes trailing down from a diffuse halo. They happen when a lightning strike produces a high-altitude “quasi-electrostatic field,” Giles said.
In other cases, lightning strikes send electromagnetic pulses upward. The pulses produce glowing disks: elves.
“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in colour due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” Giles said. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”