Jupiter's throwing a firework party for Juno – and Hubble's peeking in

Spacecraft 'welcomed' by gas giant's aurora, light show seen by NASA

That Jupiter aurora in full. Photo credit: NASA/ESA

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured new images of Jupiter’s glowing aurora swirling around one of the planet’s poles, as part of a wider observation programme of the gas giant.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is expected to descend into Jupiter on 5 July at 0418 BST, when Mission Juno will commence. The trip to Jupiter is part of a wider quest to understand how the Solar System and life within it formed billions of years ago.

Jupiter’s auroras are self-generated and always present, unlike the auroras on Earth. The planet’s spin – a rotation every 10 hours – drags its magnetic fields and causes electricity to crackle at its poles. A whirlpool of charged particles are whisked around by the electric charge and smack into other particles in Jupiter’s atmosphere, emitting light as they decelerate.

Other sources of charged particles come from the solar wind and Jupiter’s moon, Io, which expels particles from its volcanoes.

"These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen", said Jonathan Nichols, principal investigator of the study and physics lecturer at the University of Leicester. "It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno."

Taken by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory in 2007. Photo credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SwRI/R.Gladstone et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage (AURA/STScI)

The dancing lights were first spotted on the gas giant after NASA’s Voyager 1 flew by. They stretch to huge distances and in the 1990s, Hubble saw light bands that extended to sizes bigger than the Earth.

Jupiter has the largest and most powerful magnetosphere out of all the planets in the solar system, making auroras highly energetic. The light can only be observed in ultraviolet and the image used here is an ultraviolet aurora combined with an optical photograph of the planet.

Hubble and Juno will join forces to better understand how the Sun and Io influence Jupiter’s auroras. ®

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