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Jupiter’s Energy Crisis Revealed To Be Aurora Raves

It’s gettin hot on Jupiter!

August 06 2021

It’s gettin' hot on Jupiter, so take off all its… Aurorae.

Forty years ago, observations from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft and ground-based telescopes revealed that Jupiter’s uppermost atmosphere, called the thermosphere, is hot. REAL hot. SO hot. 1000 degrees Fahrenheit hot to be precise. Meanwhile, the expected temperature should have been a cool, chill, -100 degrees Fahrenheit.


For decades (apparently) astronomers have been flummoxed by what they dubbed Jupiter’s “Energy Crisis”, the unusual equatorial heat 500 miles up in the thin atmosphere. The general understanding of why some parts of a planet are hot versus frigid (aside from the effects of very real Climate Change) is in relation to the tilt of the planet’s axis relative to the sun. Whichever part of the planet spending the most time aimed at the sun is the warmer part. While, for comparison, the earth’s tilt is a relaxed 23 degrees and Uranus is way back at 98 degrees (Uranus likes to party), Jupiter is at a respectable 3 degrees, practically sitting straight up on its axis. Logic would dictate, then, that the sweatiest place on Jupiter would be at the equator that’s dead on with the sun’s sweet, sweet rays. But it’s the polar regions.  

So it's confusing. Imagine if Antartica, home of Earth’s South Polar Region, was as hot as Brazil. That’s only a fraction of how odd the temperature displacement is on Jupiter. 

Initially, it was believed Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, arguably Jupiter’s most popular feature among the public, was the source of the hot hot heat. The Red Spot is a colossal hurricane, wider than planet Earth, raging with 400 mph winds for at least 150 years (and counting). But the Great Red Spot, though the temperature above the storm is super hot, is not the driving force of the atmospheric heat. 


Space scientists at the University of Leicester working with the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), Boston University, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) used data compiled by the Keck Observatory in Hawai’i to confirm that, despite taking up less than 10% of Jupiter’s surface area, the Jovial (Jupiter) aurora are heating up the giant planet. Aurorae occur when charged particles are trapped in a planet's magnetic field. They spiral along the field lines towards the planet's magnetic poles, striking atoms and molecules to release light and energy. The Aurora Borealis and Australis (seen from Tasmania, New Zealand and Antarctica) are familiar Earth examples. 

In Jupiter’s case, the material (particles) spewing from its volcanic moon, Io, leads to the most powerful aurora in the Solar System and enormous heating in the polar regions of the planet. The Jovial Aurorae are hitching a ride on solar winds and magnetic fields, forcing energy poleward and back, distributing widespread heat instead of the heat being displaced.  

The aurora are slam-dancing particles and material, blissing out on a light show, dragging energy with them to grab a bottle of water at the Poles… only to turn right back around and take that hot energy right back down to the equator. That’s a hot planet. And it is also an energy crisis seemingly solved. 

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