Jupiter's mushball ammonia rain could explain the mystery behind shallow lightning storms in its atmosphere

Jupiter's mushball ammonia rain could explain the mystery behind shallow lightning storms in its atmosphere
Cyclone observed in Jupiter's northern hemisphere by JunoCam in July 2018 NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill
  • Lighting storms on Jupiter aren’t just happening in the deep reaches of its atmosphere but higher up too.
  • Even though the temperatures of the gas giant’s upper atmosphere are too cold to sustain water in its liquid form.
  • Ammonia acts as anti-freeze to create ‘mushballs’ and facilitate the lightning process.
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The gassiest of all gas giants and the biggest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, is known for the storms raging across its surface — like the iconic Great Red Spot. And where there’s a storm, there’s lightning. New data shows that it may be a little higher and a little more ammonia-rich than scientists were expecting.

Previous observations of the storms across Jupiter showed that its Jovian lightning flashes were located in the deep regions within the planet’s atmosphere, around 50 kilometres below the visible clouds.

However, new data collected by Juno — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) orbiter around the gas giant — show that smaller versions of these flashes are happening higher up.

Here’s where the conundrum lies — because this means that the flashes are occurring in a region where temperatures are below minus 66 degrees Celsius. Water cannot exist in a liquid state in areas that cold. Yet, the presence of a liquid is essential for there to be lightning. And that is where liquid ammonia comes in.

Ammonia acts as an anti-freeze
Just as on Earth, ammonia can raise the liquid temperatures of elements. A mixture of 2 parts water and 1 part ammonia gas can remain in liquid form to do temperatures of minus 100 degrees.

So even higher up in Jupiter’s atmosphere, they form a water-ammonia liquid that helps in the creation of ‘shallow lightning’ storms.

As the ice crystals reach into the upper reaches of the gas giant’s atmosphere and melt in the ammonia gas, they turn into the seeds for exotic ammonia hailstones — dubbed ‘mushballs’ by the researchers behind the study — in addition to helping create lightning.

Since these mushballs are heavier than the rest of the atmosphere, they begin to fall until they reach a point where they evaporate and melt into the rest of the gases.

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