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Auroras on Jupiter Seen Spawning Massive and Extreme Heat Waves

Jupiter should be frigid, but massive areas of its upper atmosphere are far hotter than anywhere on Earth.

Jupiter in shades of blue and purple appears to glow in the upper reaches. Faint rings and moons are visible.
A view of the giant planet from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. 
NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt

When the solar wind collides with Earth's magnetosphere, we get typically brief but dazzling light displays called auroras. Surprisingly, scientists have discovered that on gas giant planet Jupiter, auroras seem to be causing massive, planetary-scale heat waves.

The observations help solve one of the more perplexing mysteries in our solar system: why some gas giant planets in deep space, including Jupiter and Saturn, are hotter than expected when they should be ice cold. 

And hot in the case of Jupiter doesn't mean a little lukewarm. 

A team led by James O'Donoghue of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, produced maps of Jupiter's upper atmosphere that helped identify an unexpected heated region with temperatures of 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit) spanning roughly 10 Earth diameters. 

"Thanks to these maps, we demonstrated that Jupiter's auroras were a possible mechanism that could explain these temperatures," O'Donoghue said in a statement.  

The team's data revealed one remarkable heat wave originating just below Jupiter's northern aurora that was sweeping toward the planet's equator, moving at thousands of miles per hour. 

While auroras on Earth are intermittent and tied to periods of high solar activity, Jupiter's auroras are permanent and ongoing but with variations in intensity. They heat up an area around the planet's poles and winds then distribute the warmth around the planet. 

"While the auroras continuously deliver heat to the rest of the planet, these heat wave 'events' represent an additional, significant energy source," said O'Donoghue.  

The findings were presented this week at the Europlanet Science Congress 2022 in Spain. 

Researchers hope that the new discovery will provide a better understanding of the inner workings of gas giant planets and how they stay warm amid the frigid depths of space.