Hubble Captures New Images of Jupiter's Northern Lights


A composite image created by combining a 2014 optical image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and ultraviolet observations of its auroras in 2016. NASA/ESA
A composite image created by combining a 2014 optical image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and ultraviolet observations of its auroras in 2016. NASA/ESA

Earthbound travelers will often take trips of thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, heading to the far reaches of places like Canada or Iceland. The Hubble Space Telescope, however, has captured new images of an aurora much, much farther away: the poles of Jupiter.

The largest planet in our solar system recently put on an impressive display in its upper atmosphere. The vivid ultraviolet light show was formed by solar wind — high-energy particles ejected from the sun — hitting Jupiter's atmosphere and colliding with gas atoms.

The particles hitting Jupiter come not just from solar storms and other galactic detritus, like those that create the auroras on Earth; the strong magnetic pull of Jupiter's poles also pulls in particles created by eruptions on Jupiter's volcanic moon Io. Another thing that sets Jupiter's auroras apart from those here at home is that while ours come and go, those on Jupiter never stop, and are hundreds of times stronger than Earth's.

Hubble is looking at the aurora in an effort to determine how different solar wind conditions affect the them. This observation's well timed, because the NASA space prone Juno is set to arrive in polar orbit around Jupiter on Monday, July 4, on a mission to measure the properties of the solar winds themselves and Jupiter's atmosphere.

"These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen," says lead author Jonathan Nichols, in a press release. "It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno."

Auroras rippling around the poles of Jupiter were previously photographed in 2007, as the New Horizons space probe was on its way to Pluto and beyond. You can check out the current ultraviolet auroras in action thanks to brief videos on Hubble's site.