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NASA Observes ‘Superbolts’ of Lightning on Jupiter

NASA has just announced that the Juno spacecraft has once again observed “Superbolts” of lightning in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And while spotting lightning on the jumbo planet isn’t new, this latest observation may help to answer some big questions. Big questions like: Why is there such a funky distribution of ammonia in the Gas Giant’s atmosphere?

In an announcement that comes via Science News, NASA outlined the recent Jovian-lightning observations, which were collected by Juno. Juno is a NASA space probe that orbits Jupiter, collecting data and jaw-dropping images like these ones.

“Juno’s close flybys of the cloud tops allowed us to see something surprising – smaller, shallower flashes [of lightning] – originating at much higher altitudes in Jupiter’s atmosphere than previously assumed possible,” said Heidi Becker, Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation lead at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Becker was the lead author of a recent study based on Juno’s findings published in Nature.

For these superbolts of lightning—which are up to 1,000 times as powerful as lightning on Earth—to occur at those higher altitudes, there needs to be some way to keep water in its liquid state. And that’s where ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, enters the picture.

Unlike Earth’s weather system, which is driven by water, Jupiter’s is driven by both water and ammonia. Due to all of the ammonia in Jupiter’s atmosphere, water can reach much higher altitudes before freezing. This, in turn, allows for the formation of the high-altitude superbolts, despite ambient temperatures of -126 °F.

“At these altitudes, the ammonia acts like an antifreeze, lowering the melting point of water ice and allowing the formation of a cloud with ammonia-water liquid,” Becker said in the NASA announcement. “In this new state, falling droplets of ammonia-water liquid can collide with the up-going water-ice crystals and electrify the clouds,” she added.

But this theory not only explains how the superbolts form. It also explains why Juno has detected “pockets of missing ammonia” in Jupiter’s atmosphere. This is because Becker and her colleagues theorize that hail develops at the same high altitudes as the superbolts, and subsequently falls back deep into the lower atmosphere. The ammonia, in turn, is captured in the hail—described as “Windex snow cones” by Becker—where it is rendered invisible to Juno’s sensors.

So-called Superbolts of lightning have once again been observed in Jupiter's atmosphere.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/CNRS

“[L]ightning on Jupiter isn’t happening the same way like it does on Earth,” Becker says in the video above. She adds that this kind of lightning “is very exotic and very different than what we have here on Earth and that’s what’s most exciting to me.”

What do you think about these superbolts of lightning in Jupiter’s atmosphere? And why does “Windex snow cone” sound like it could be a real thing in 2020? Electrify us with your thoughts in the comments, people!

Feature Image: Paul Anglada