[ Main | News | Countdown | Search | FAQ | Glossary ]

Hubble Images of Jupiter's Aurora



CONTACT:  Don Savage
          NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
          (Phone: 202-358-1547)

          Tammy Jones
          Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
          (Phone: 301-286-5566)

          Ray Villard                                            
          Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
          (Phone: 410-338-4514)

          John T. Clarke
          University of Michigan College of Engineering, Ann Arbor, MI
          (Phone: 313-747-3540)

          Gilda Ballester
          University of Michigan College of Engineering, Ann Arbor, MI
          (Phone: 313-747-3670)

October 17, 1996


Hubble Space Telescope's sharp view of the rapid, spectacular dance of luminescent gasses high in Jupiter's atmosphere -- better known as aurora -- is allowing astronomers to map Jupiter's immense magnetic field and better understand how it generates such phenomena.

"Now that we have pinpointed the general location of the auroral curtains and have mapped their daily changes, eventually we should be able to find out what causes the aurora on Jupiter," said John T. Clarke, an astronomer at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering.

The new Hubble observations simultaneously show warped oval rings at the north and south poles (offset from Jupiter's spin axis by 10-15 degrees), as well as an auroral "footprint" created by a river of electrical current of about one million amperes flowing between Jupiter and the volcanic moon Io.

The Hubble images provide enough detail to allow Clarke and his colleagues to record daily changes in the auroras' intensity and motion. They find that changes in brightness occur over the course of a Jovian day, perhaps due to compression of Jupiter's magnetic field on the sun-facing side of the planet. They also find emission features that are fixed on the planet, co-rotating with it.

This global view is complemented by in situ measurements of the magnetic field and charged particles by the Galileo spacecraft, now orbiting Jupiter. By comparing close-up and global views scientists expect to refine theories about how Jupiter creates and maintains its electrical, incandescent light shows.

The team of scientists, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD and other institutions, studied Jupiter's auroras for two years with the telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. Their results have led to two papers, one first authored by Clarke and the other by Gilda Ballester, also of the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. Both papers appear in the October 18 issue of Science. The images, taken in ultraviolet light, are the most sensitive and sharply-detailed views of the auroras to date. Previous observations of Jupiter's aurora have been recorded by Hubble's Faint Object Camera and by ground-based telescopes using near-infrared filters. Hubble sees features as small as 186 miles across (300 kilometers). This allows Clarke and his colleagues to watch small-scale, rapid changes in the auroral pattern, map changes in both magnetic poles, and pinpoint the effects of emissions from Io.

Auroras occur when charged particles (electrons, protons, and positive ions) are captured in the magnetic field surrounding a planet. Falling toward the magnetic north and south poles, they collide with molecules and atoms in a planet's upper atmosphere. The atoms become energized and release the extra energy in the form of light, just as gas in florescent and neon lights glows when an electric current is applied.

By studying images of Jupiter's entire disk, the investigators found, surprisingly, the auroras mirror each other at the north and south poles. Though Earth's auroras at each pole also are carbon copies of each other, previous spatially-unresolved observations and theories for Jupiter suggested that some locations on the auroral ovals should be brighter. That's because, in Jupiter's case, the magnetic field has large asymmetries and more charged particles trapped in the field could, under specific mechanisms, eventually fall into the atmosphere at the weaker locations, and would thus create a brighter light show.

A critical difference is that auroras on Earth are triggered by a barrage of charged particles from the Sun. This process is different on Jupiter, although not well understood. Fundamentally, the planet's immense magnetic field, coupled with its fast, 10-hour rotation, helps generate auroras that are 1,000 times more powerful than Earth's spectacular light shows.

The situation is complicated by material released by Jupiter's moon, Io. Scientists believe that volcanic eruptions on Io churn out particles that become ionized, expand radially, and are trapped by Jupiter's immense magnetic field. These charges are forced to co-rotate with the planet, creating an immense sheet of current that in turn modifies Jupiter's magnetic field. What has not been clear on Jupiter is the balance of the internal processes versus the Sun-driven processes, and how these processes produce the auroral lights.

On Earth, magnetic storms are triggered by large changes in the solar particles, producing very bright auroras. These storms can disrupt radio signals and communication systems, interfere with airplane navigation and cause power outages. One storm in 1989 knocked out a Quebec power station serving 9 million people. The team has found that energetic auroral storms also occur on Jupiter, but that these storms may be triggered instead by internal processes.

Some of the material released by Io produces a fierce current of charged particles. The particles become ionized and are then drawn into Jupiter's intense magnetic field along an invisible "flux tube," which bridges both worlds. This creates small auroral spots just outside the ovals around both magnetic poles. By studying changes in the intensity of these spots, Clarke and his colleagues were able to map Jupiter's magnetic field as Io orbits through it. The scientists linked the spots to Io's "flux tube" because the auroral emissions rotate with Jupiter while the spots remain in a fixed location underneath Io.

"The size of the aurora at the magnetic footprint of Io is 600 to 1,200 miles (1,000 to 2,000 kilometers) across," Clarke said. "If you were at Jupiter's cloudtops, under Io's footprint, the aurora would fill the entire sky. You would see an explosion as the gasses 250 miles above you rapidly heated to more than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The aurora would speed overhead from east to west at more than 10,000 miles per hour (5 kilometers per second) because Jupiter's fast rotation moves it rapidly underneath Io, which orbits more slowly.

Clarke and his colleagues hope that future observations will yield more information about the auroras. The team also is sharing data with the scientists operating the Galileo spacecraft, which moves through Jupiter's magnetic field repeatedly as it orbits the giant planet and surveys the Galilean satellites. Galileo can record the type of charged particles (ions, protons, electrons) in the field, their location and energy. Information from Hubble and Galileo is important because scientists can create a more accurate picture of the charged particles which produce the auroral lights, which eventually could lead them to its source on Io.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Image files in GIF and JPEG format and captions may be accessed on Internet via anonymous ftp from ftp.stsci.edu in /pubinfo.

                                   GIF                 JPEG
PRC96-32       Jupiter Aurora      gif/jupaur.gif      jpeg/jupaur.jpg

Higher resolution digital versions (300 dpi JPEG) of the release photograph
will be available temporarily in /pubinfo/hrtemp: 96-32.jpg (color) and
96-32bw.jpg (black/white).

GIF and JPEG images, captions and press release text are available via World
Wide Web at: 
http://www.stsci.edu/pubinfo/PR/96/32.html and via links in:
http://www.stsci.edu/pubinfo/Latest.html or



These images, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveal changes in Jupiter's auroral emissions and how small auroral spots just outside the emission rings are linked to the planet's volcanic moon, Io. The images represent the most sensitive and sharply-detailed views ever taken of Jovian auroras.

The top panel pinpoints the effects of emissions from Io, which is about the size of Earth's moon. The black-and-white image on the left, taken in visible light, shows how Io and Jupiter are linked by an invisible electrical current of charged particles called a "flux tube." The particles - ejected from Io (the bright spot on Jupiter's right) by volcanic eruptions - flow along Jupiter's magnetic field lines, which thread through Io, to the planet's north and south magnetic poles. This image also shows the belts of clouds surrounding Jupiter as well as the Great Red Spot.

The black-and-white image on the right, taken in ultraviolet light about 15 minutes later, shows Jupiter's auroral emissions at the north and south poles. Just outside these emissions are the auroral spots. Called "footprints," the spots are created when the particles in Io's "flux tube" reach Jupiter's upper atmosphere and interact with hydrogen gas, making it fluoresce. In this image, Io is not observable because it is faint in the ultraviolet.

The two ultraviolet images at the bottom of the picture show how the auroral emissions change in brightness and structure as Jupiter rotates. These false-color images also reveal how the magnetic field is offset from Jupiter's spin axis by 10 to 15 degrees. In the right image, the north auroral emission is rising over the limb; the south auroral oval is beginning to set. The image on the left, obtained on a different date, shows a full view of the north aurora, with a strong emission inside the main auroral oval.

The images were taken by the telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 between May 1994 and September 1995.

Credits: John T. Clarke and Gilda E. Ballester (University of Michigan), John Trauger and Robin Evans (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and NASA.

Return to Project Galileo Homepage