Lightning “goblins” have been detected on Jupiter for the first time, thanks to NASA’s Juno mission
NASA’s Juno spacecraft just captured images of colorful blasts of lightning-like electricity high up in Jupiter’s atmosphere. These phenomena, which include jellyfish-shaped “spirits” and glowing discs called “elves,” also occur high in Earth’s atmosphere during electrical storms.
“Goblins” were first documented in 1989. Scientists predicted that other lightning-bearing planets, such as Jupiter, would also produce these transient light events, but no one had ever seen alien goblins or elves before.
Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 and collecting images of its auroras in ultraviolet light. A team of researchers processing those snapshots recently noticed something strange.
“In the process of putting those images together, we noticed that very occasionally we would see these bright, short-lived and startling flashes,” said Rohini Giles, a researcher on the Juno team, at a press conference Tuesday during the Division’s annual meeting. Planetary Sciences from the American Astronomical Association.
“Then we looked at all the data that we have collected during the four years of the mission and we found a total of 11 flashes, all with very similar properties,” he added.
Giles’ team published a new study on these flashes in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on Tuesday.
Sprites, alien goblins
On Earth, goblins appear as long red tendrils, sometimes descending from a fuzzy halo. They occur when lightning produces a “quasi-electrostatic field” at high altitude, Giles said.
In other cases, the rays send electromagnetic pulses upward. The pulses produce glowing discs: elves.
“On Earth, goblins and elves appear reddish due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere”
But Giles added that “on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere is made up mostly of hydrogen, so they will likely appear blue or pink.
Juno cannot confirm that these events were triggered by lightning, as the probe’s ray detection instrument is on the other side of the spacecraft from its UV imaging instrument. The images from the two instruments are taken at least 10 seconds apart, a delay that is too long to capture the same short flash of light.
But all else points to these 11 bursts as transient light events: They were very short-lived, emitted a lot of hydrogen, and occurred about 186 miles (300 kilometers) above Jupiter’s water clouds, too high to be lightning. .
“We keep looking for more telltale signs of elves and goblins every time Juno takes a science pass,” Giles said.
“Now that we know what we are looking for, it will be easier to find them on Jupiter and other planets. And comparing the goblins and elves on Jupiter with those on Earth will help us better understand electrical activity in planetary atmospheres.”