Sprites are haunting Jupiter’s atmosphere, NASA spacecraft finds

Jupiter; Sprites; Space Fairies
Jupiter; Sprites; Space Fairies

This illustration shows the lightning phenomenon known as a sprite and what a sprite could look like in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Named after a mischievous, quick-witted character in English folklore, sprites last for only a few milliseconds. They feature a central blob of light with long tendrils of light extending down toward the ground and upward. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

This article originally appeared here on Salon.com

Ghosts and spirits are common sights on Earth the week of Halloween, but it turns out apparitions appear exist on other planets too. (No, we’re not talking about aliens).

According to a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter saw sprites or “elves” are “dancing” in the upper atmosphere of the planet. In English folklore, sprites are supernatural quick-witted characters. In the natural world, sprites are unpredictable, bright, brief flashes of light—formally known as transient luminous events (TLEs). ELVES, or Emission of Light and Very low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic pulse Sources, are a kind of TLE — bright and quick flashes of light. TLEs appear in Earth’s skies very rarely, but this is the first time they’ve been observed on another planet.

“We suggest that these are elves, sprites or sprite halos, three types of TLEs that produce spectacular flashes of light very high in the Earth’s atmosphere in response to lightning strikes between clouds or between clouds and the ground,” the researchers stated in the paper. “TLEs have previously only been observed on Earth, although theoretical and experimental work has predicted that they should also be present on other planets, including Jupiter.”

On Earth, this phenomenon usually happens about 60 miles above large thunderstorms. The light from sprites can span 15 to 30 miles. It’s quite a light show, though they last only milliseconds. Some observers have remarked that they resemble jellyfish in the sky.

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The Jupiter discovery was unexpected, made by the Juno spacecraft’s ultraviolet spectrograph instrument (UVS), which observes ultraviolet light on the planet. According to the paper, 11 transient bright flashes were detected.

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” Rohini Giles, a Juno scientist and the lead author of the paper, said in a statement. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a TLE on Jupiter.”

Scientists long suspected that sprites and elves occurred on Jupiter. Juno’s UVS instrument observed the bright flashes in a region where large lightning thunderstorms are known to occur.

Interestingly, their colors appear to be different on the largest planet in our solar system, as Jupiter’s upper atmosphere is mostly made of hydrogen, whereas Earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.

“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their

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Juno mission observes ‘sprites’ dancing in Jupiter’s atmosphere

Blue sprites and elves have been detected twirling in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter by NASA’s Juno mission. While it may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, sprites and elves are actually two types of quick, bright flashes of light, or transient luminous events.



background pattern: A sprite is depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter's hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make this luminous event appear blue.


© SwRI/JPL-Caltech/NASA
A sprite is depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make this luminous event appear blue.

Although these lightning-like flashes happen on Earth, this marks the first time these luminous events have been spotted on another planet.

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In European mythology, sprites are clever, fairy-like creatures. In science, they’re bright centers of light that are triggered by lightning and occur far above thunderstorms.

These phenomena occur on Earth, usually about 60 miles above large thunderstorms. Although the light from sprites brightening the sky can span 15 to 30 miles across, these flares last for just milliseconds. The shape of these flashes, like a jellyfish, extends both up and down toward the ground.

Elves, or Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources, are also quick flashes of light. They can brighten a larger area of the sky that can stretch as far as 200 miles across, and their shape looks more like a flat disk.

“On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said lead study author and Juno planetary scientist Rohini S. Giles, in a statement. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

The study published Tuesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

While scientists predicted Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere and massive storms could support the presence of these luminous events, they had never been observed.

The Juno mission went into orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, in 2016. Since then, it has helped to rewrite much of what scientists previously understood about Jupiter. So far, Juno has conducted 29 science flybys of Jupiter with its instruments on and collecting data about the planet.

Among the spacecraft’s instruments is an ultraviolet spectrograph, or UVS, that images Jupiter’s auroras in ultraviolet light.

But Juno’s team also believes the instrument has captured evidence of sprites and elves in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. The researchers spotted a disappearing bright flash of light in the ultraviolet data during the summer of 2019.

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” said Giles, postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a (transient luminous event) on Jupiter.”

Juno has captured 11 of these bright flashes so far occurring in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere over a region where intense lightning-filled thunderstorms form.

Jupiter

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Juno data indicates ‘sprites’ or ‘elves’ frolic in Jupiter’s atmosphere

Juno data indicates 'sprites' or 'elves' frolic in Jupiter's atmosphere
The lightning phenomenon known as a sprite depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make them appear blue. In Earth’s upper atmosphere, the presence of nitrogen gives them a reddish color. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

New results from NASA’s Juno mission at Jupiter suggest that either “sprites” or “elves” could be dancing in the upper atmosphere of the solar system’s largest planet. It is the first time these bright, unpredictable and extremely brief flashes of light—formally known as transient luminous events, or TLE’s—have been observed on another world. The findings were published on Oct. 27, 2020, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.


Scientists predicted these bright, superfast flashes of light should also be present in Jupiter’s immense roiling atmosphere, but their existence remained theoretical. Then, in the summer of 2019, researchers working with data from Juno’s ultraviolet spectrograph instrument (UVS) discovered something unexpected: a bright, narrow streak of ultraviolet emission that disappeared in a flash.

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” said Giles, a Juno scientist and the lead author of the paper. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a TLE on Jupiter.”

Brief and Brilliant

Named after a mischievous, quick-witted character in English folklore, sprites are transient luminous events triggered by lightning discharges from thunderstorms far below. On Earth, they occur up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) above intense, towering thunderstorms and brighten a region of the sky tens of miles across, yet last only a few milliseconds (a fraction of the time it takes you to blink an eye).

Juno data indicates 'sprites' or 'elves' frolic in Jupiter's atmosphere
The south pole of Jupiter and a potential transient luminous event – a bright, unpredictable, and extremely brief flash of light – is seen in this annotated image of data acquired on April 10, 2020, from Juno’s UVS instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Almost resembling a jellyfish, sprites feature a central blob of light (on Earth, it’s 15 to 30 miles, or 24 to 48 kilometers, across), with long tendrils extending both down toward the ground and upward. Elves (short for Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources) appear as a flattened disk glowing in Earth’s upper atmosphere. They, too, brighten the sky for mere milliseconds but can grow larger than sprites—up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) across on Earth.

Their colors are distinctive as well. “On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said Giles. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

Location, Location, Location

The occurrence of sprites and elves at Jupiter was predicted by several previously published studies. Synching with these predictions, the 11 large-scale bright events Juno’s UVS instrument has

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Volcanoes Spew Sulfur Into Atmosphere of Jupiter’s Moon Io

Jupiter’s moon Io is a dramatic place — even though it’s just 1,131 miles across, or just a bit bigger than Earth’s moon, it hosts over 400 active volcanoes, some of which are as large as 124 miles across. These volcanoes spew out sulfur gases that freeze on the moon’s chilly surface and give it its distinctive yellow and orange color.

Another odd feature about Io is that it has an atmosphere, albeit an extremely thin one. At a billion times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere, it’s barely there, but it does exist and is composed mostly of sulfur from the volcanoes. But researchers weren’t sure about how exactly this atmosphere formed, so recent research has used Earth-based telescopes to examine this puzzle.

“It was not known which process drives the dynamics in Io’s atmosphere,” lead author Imke de Pater of the University of California, Berkeley, explained in a statement. “Is it volcanic activity, or gas that sublimates from the icy surface when Io is in sunlight? What we show is that, actually, volcanoes do have a large impact on the atmosphere.”

Composite image showing Jupiter's moon Io in radio (ALMA), and optical light (Voyager 1 and Galileo). The ALMA images of Io show for the first time plumes of sulfur dioxide (in yellow) rise up from its volcanoes. Jupiter is visible in the background (Cassini image).
Composite image showing Jupiter’s moon Io in radio (ALMA), and optical light (Voyager 1 and Galileo). The ALMA images of Io show for the first time plumes of sulfur dioxide (in yellow) rise up from its volcanoes. Jupiter is visible in the background (Cassini image). ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), I. de Pater et al.; NRAO/AUI NSF, S. Dagnello; NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The researchers took radio images from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) when Io was moving in and out of the shadow of Jupiter. This change in temperature allowed them to see different states of the sulfur in the atmosphere.

“When Io passes into Jupiter’s shadow, and is out of direct sunlight, it is too cold for sulfur dioxide gas, and it condenses onto Io’s surface,” co-author Statia Luszcz-Cook from Columbia University said. “During that time we can only see volcanically-sourced sulfur dioxide. We can therefore see exactly how much of the atmosphere is impacted by volcanic activity.”

The readings showed that between 30% and 50% of the sulfur in the atmosphere comes directly from the volcanoes. And there was an unexpected bonus finding as well: Another gas, potassium chloride, was also spotted coming from the volcanoes. This gas was only spotted in certain regions, suggesting that different magma reservoirs feed different volcanoes on the surface.

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