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NASA spacecraft captures image of ghostly lightning on Jupiter

<i>NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS</i><br/>In this image captured in December 2020
In this image captured in December 2020

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

(CNN) — A NASA spacecraft captured the eerie glow of lightning inside a swirling vortex on Jupiter.

The green lightning bolt was seen inside one of the many vortices that cluster near Jupiter’s north pole.

Scientists are still trying to understand many facets of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, including its massive storms and how lightning and lightning-like events occur on the gas giant.

Lightning bolts originate from water clouds on Earth, and most of the strikes occur near the equator. But on Jupiter, the strikes emerge from clouds that are the result of ammonia and water, and they occur most frequently near the planet’s poles.

The Juno spacecraft, which first arrived to observe Jupiter and its moons in 2016, captured the event during its 31st close flyby of the gas giant on December 30, 2020. The mission was about 19,900 miles (32,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops when it took the image.

Using raw data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam instrument, citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill developed the final image in 2022.

The raw images of Jupiter and its moons taken by JunoCam are posted online and available for anyone to process.

Juno’s ongoing investigation will help scientists gain a greater understanding of the largest planet in the solar system and its distinctive features.

Peering below dense clouds

Juno’s orbit around Jupiter is shifting closer to the planet over time, so the spacecraft will closely pass its nightside in the coming months, allowing for more opportunities to spy lightning on the gas giant.

“As well as continuously changing our orbit to allow new perspectives of Jupiter and flying low over the nightside of the planet, the spacecraft will also be threading the needle between some of Jupiter’s rings to learn more about their origin and composition,” said Matthew Johnson, acting project manager for the Juno mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

Juno is equipped with multiple instruments that can make detections beneath the thick cloud cover on Jupiter to collect data on the planet’s origins, atmosphere and weather phenomena.

The spacecraft has performed more than 50 flybys of Jupiter and also made close passes by three of Jupiter’s largest moons, including the icy ocean worlds of Europa and Ganymede, and Io, the most volcanically active place in the solar system.

“Our upcoming flybys in July and October will bring us even closer, leading up to our twin flyby encounters with Io in December of this year and February of next year, when we fly within 1,500 kilometers of its surface,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “All of these flybys are providing spectacular views of the volcanic activity of this amazing moon. The data should be amazing.”

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