Global Warming

Watch: Jupiter's "Northern Lights" have an unexpected effect on the planet

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Bertrand Bonfond

NASA via Giphy

Jupiter’s atmosphere is hot. Surprisingly hot, considering the planet is over five times as far from the Sun as Earth is.

So how does it maintain steamy upper atmospheric temperatures of around 800 degrees Fahrenheit?

Dubbed the “energy crisis” on Jupiter, scientists have puzzled over this question for decades. Now, they might have a solid answer.


J. O'Donoghue (JAXA)/Hubble/NASA/ESA/A. Simon/J. Schmidt

A study published August 4 in the journal Nature shows the gas giant likely gets its heat from its polar aurorae.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Bertrand Bonfond

These vibrant, magnetic storms happen on the north and south poles of Jupiter, and are caused by charged particles trapped in its atmosphere.


They’re caused by similar forces as the ones that create Earth’s northern lights.


On Jupiter, auroras are supercharged by particles flying off of the planet’s explosive moon, Io. The moon has hundreds of volcanoes that erupt every day.

Watch how heat pulses from Jupiter’s aurorae across the whole planet:

J. O'Donoghue (JAXA)/Hubble/NASA/ESA/A. Simon/J. Schmidt

The bright white aurorae are the hottest spots on Jupiter, and the deep red zones in the middle of the planet are the coolest.J. O'Donoghue (JAXA)/Hubble/NASA/ESA/A. Simon/J. Schmidt

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

Researchers previously proposed that the auroras might be responsible for atmospheric heat, though it wasn’t until now that analysis of several years' worth of data could prove it.

Art by Karen Teramura, UH IfA with James O’Donoghue and Luke Moore

Previous models also showed that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a massive, swirling storm on the lower half of the planet, might be responsible for a great deal of heat in its atmosphere.

“We found that Jupiter’s intense aurora, the most powerful in the solar system, is responsible for heating the entire planet’s upper atmosphere to surprisingly high temperatures.”

James O'Donoghue, lead study author

kanyhun / Imazins/ImaZinS/Getty Images

It turns out those bright aurorae that we can see from above Jupiter are more than just a light show.

Read more stories about space here.

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