Juno Mission's Death Plunge Put Off by NASA

A 2017 file image from NASA shows the planet Jupiter when it was at a distance of about 415 million miles from Earth.  via AP File

However, back then, Jupiter's lightning strikes seemed to be quite different than the thunderstorms we have on our planet. This is far more than earlier spacecraft could detect.

"Until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by spacecraft were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range", Shannon Brown, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a lead author on the paper, said.

"Our microwave and plasma wave instruments are state-of-the-art, allowing us to pick out even weak lightning signals from the cacophony of radio emissions from Jupiter".

Since then, NASA's Galileo and Cassini, which whizzed near Jupiter on its way to Saturn, validated the initial theories that lightning on Jupiter occurs.

In Jupiter, lightning occurs mostly near the poles and is more common in the northern hemisphere.

In a separate paper published in Nature, a team of researchers led by Ivana Kolmašová of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague presented the largest database of low-frequency lightning-generated emissions collected to date.

Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere is riddled with storms, so it stands to reason there's lightning there too. Jupiter's recorded lightning strikes are typically smaller than on Earth, but not all the time, with most bursts have a frequency of about 600 megahertz, but which have the potential to reach gigahertz levels like the bolts seen on Earth.

That's a lot to digest, so let's break it down a bit: All the tools on previous spacecraft that tried to listen in to Jupiter's lightning didn't hear the kinds of radio signals that are produced by lightning on Earth.

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On Earth, radiation from the Sun provides the most warmth to the planet's equator, which is why the equatorial zone between the tropical latitudes is so warm (and stormy). The spacecraft's Microwave Radiometer, aka MWR instrument, detected as many as 377 lightning discharges during its orbit and found signs of the radio waves that had been undetected until now.

Heat drives lightning, and the sun's rays cause Earth's equator to heat up more than the poles.

"That distribution of lightning is kind of upside-down from what we'd expect on Earth", he said. This varying radio frequency suggests that the lightning from the two planets are wildly different.

Some of Juno's accomplishments include offering humanity's first up-close view of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, stating that the planet's atmosphere has features unlike anything else encountered in the solar system, and that the Great Red Spot storm has been shrinking for years but that as it shrinks it grows taller. Its mission managers initially wanted to destroy the orbiter by plunging it into Jupiter's clouds sometime after it concludes its mission in July.

"These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation, and energy flows on Jupiter", Brown concluded. Therefore, warm gases from the planet's interior are rising up at the poles, creating the recipe for lighting.

The $1.1 billion Juno mission has been extended through at least July 2021, NASA officials announced yesterday (June 6).

"NASA has approved Juno to continue through 2022 to finish all of our originally planned science", Scott Bolton, Juno's principle investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, told Gizmodo.

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