Jupiter 'puts on fireworks display' as space probe approaches planet

The image of Jupiter's Northern Lights was taken ahead of the arrival of Nasa’s spaceship Juno, which will spend a year monitoring the largest planet

Rachael Pells
Thursday 30 June 2016 18:17 BST
(NASA / ESA / J. Nichols)

A rare aurora similar to that of Earth’s northern lights has been captured above Jupiter’s North Pole.

The image was taken by the Hubble telescope ahead of the arrival of Nasa’s spaceship Juno next week, and details a light show likened to a “firework party” thrown by the planet in time for Juno’s arrival.

Jupiter is known for its colourful storms such as the Great Red Spot which swirls constantly in the planet’s atmosphere. The planet has a powerful magnetic field which means it has spectacular light shows at its poles which are hundreds of times more energetic than those on Earth.

British astronomer Dr Jonathan Nichols, from the University of Leicester, who heads the Hubble team investigating Jupiter's light displays, said: “These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen.”

“It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno.”

To highlight changes in the auroras, which cover areas bigger than the Earth, Hubble is observing Jupiter daily for around a month.

Nasa’s probe is able fly to within 2,900 miles (4,667 km) of Jupiter’s atmosphere - closer than any previous spacecraft – due to special shiedling to protest sensitive electronics from the radiation storm generated by the planet’s magnetic field.

The aim of the programme is to determine how Jupiter's auroras respond to changing conditions in the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted from the sun.

Auroras like those seen on Earth and Jupiter are created when high energy particles flying through space enter a planet's atmosphere near its magnetic poles and collide with atoms of gas.

Unlike Earthly auroras, those on Jupiter never cease. While on Earth the phenomenon is caused by charged particles raining down from the sun, Jupiter has an additional aurora “dynamo”. Charged particles thrown into space by Jupiter's volcanically active moon, Io, are also captured by the planet's magnetic field.

Juno, which has a planned lifespan of 20 months, will study Jupiter's magnetic field and the source of its raging 384mph winds, and take panoramic colour photos.

Unusually for a robotic space mission, it is carrying passengers - three Lego figures depicting the 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, the Roman god Jupiter, and the deity's wife Juno.

Lego made the figures out of aluminium rather than the usual plastic so they could withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.

Juno was launched by Nasa from Cape Canaveral, Florida in August 2011. By the time the spacecraft reaches Jupiter, it will have travelled 1.4 billion miles.

Additional reporting by PA

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