Newly discovered light shows on Jupiter


Photo by Shlomo Shalev on Unsplash

The Milky Way Galaxy, in which the Earth and Jupiter are found

Timothy Fagan, Staff Writer

The “Sprite” or “Elves” are two atmospheric light shows that occur on earth when lightning alters the electromagnetic environment in the atmosphere above a storm. On Earth, these Sprites appear about 60 miles above a very intense storm and will brighten up miles of the sky for only a few brief milliseconds which is faster than the blink of an eye, according to Science News. The sprite can somewhat resemble a jellyfish. It has a central bubble of light that stretches for 15 to 30 miles along with long tendrils that extend to the ground. The Elves are characterized as a more flat disk that glows on the upper atmosphere. Similarly to sprites, they last only a few milliseconds but can stretch for hundreds of miles. 

This concept of Sprites and Elves are known phenomena, however scientists have often wondered and theorized about their existence on other planets that experience lightning. Up until now, it was a simple theory that Jupiter also experiences Sprites and Elves, according to NASA. Thanks to the ultraviolet spectrograph instrument on the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, scientists were able to obtain actual proof of their existence outside of Earth’s atmosphere. While the Jupiter sprites and elves are similar in shape to our own, they are different in color. “On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said Giles, a Juno scientist and coauthor of this study. Giles goes on to state, “but on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

The spacecraft Juno was able to capture this effect with its ultraviolet spectrograph while it was orbiting Jupiter. Juno orbited Jupiter from 2016 to 2020 and caught 11 superfast flashes of light across the planet. The ultraviolet light was at wavelengths emitted by molecular hydrogen which is the wavelength consistent of expected sprites or elves on Jupiter since its atmosphere is made mostly of hydrogen as opposed to nitrogen.

There is still some slight debate, since the images of the event are not completely clear. Scientists believe that Juno would need to see a lightning strike at the same place as these bright flares in order to confirm whether they are Sprites or Elves, says study coauthor Rohini Giles, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Getting physically closer to the planet may also help reveal whether these are Sprites or Elves or even both occurring in Jupiter’s atmosphere.