Although the solar system is—quite possibly—devoid of life beyond Earth, seemingly magical things are still happening on all its planets. NASA, for example, has just announced that a team of scientists has spotted so-called “sprites” and “elves” on Jupiter. And while these phenomena exist because of physics rather than fairytales, they still make our galactic niche feel more mystical.
The NASA scientists outlined their discovery, made with the space agency’s Juno spacecraft, in a recent press release. And, apparently, the team originally had no intention of actually capturing any elves or sprites.
Images captured with Juno’s ultraviolet spectrograph instrument, or UVS, showed “not only … Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be,” Rohini S. Giles said in NASA’s release. Giles, a Juno scientist and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, added that, “The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a [transient luminous event] on Jupiter.”
In fact, these elves and sprites on Jupiter stand as the first of their kind discovered on another world; their kind being transient luminous events, or TLE’s. As Skybrary notes, TLE’s are short-lived, electrically induced forms of luminous plasma that occur far above the altitudes of normal lightning and clouds during thunderstorms. More specifically, sprites—which in this case spanned up to 200 miles long—are like blobs of light with long tendrils, while elves appear to have a more disk-like shape.
In the image up top, NASA provides an illustration of what the sprites on Jupiter may look like. Below that is an illustration—not related to this research—showing where sprites appear in Earth’s atmosphere in relation to a thunderstorm. There’s also an annotated image of the LTE Juno captured (below), which gives a sense of what the spacecraft observed.
“Now that we know what we are looking for, it will be easier to find [TLE’s] at Jupiter and on other planets,” Giles told NASA. He added that he and his colleagues want to now compare the TLE’s from Jupiter to those here on Earth. In general, Giles says, this will help scientists to gain a better understanding of the electrical activity in planetary atmospheres.
And for those wondering what TLE’s look like here on Earth, check out the below video from nature lover, Paul M Smith. Roughly half way through Smith’s video, which he recorded in Oklahoma, sprites appear high in the sky. As NASA notes, sprites appear to be red on Earth thanks to its atmospheric makeup. Which implies we could find an endless parade of these photonic fairytale creatures on other planets in the future.
Feature image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI