There’s more to Jupiter than what meets the eye. At least, that’s what planetary scientists recently discovered when they stumbled upon a mysterious dark “ribbon” around Jupiter’s magnetic equator. This ribbon, created by interactions between the planet’s magnetic field and ionosphere, was found by a team led by University of Leicester planetary astronomer Tom Stallard.

A Magnetic Discovery

To study the planet’s magnetic field, Stallard and his colleagues stitched together 13,501 images taken of Jupiter between 1995 and 2000. These images were originally captured for magnetic field studies by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, but the field of view from the images was wide enough to show the entire planet and proved to be a tedious but useful tool for discovery. The team then studied infrared emissions from H3+ ions using an NSFCam instrument at the NASA InfraRed Telescope Facility. This discovery of the “ribbon” became the first evidence of a localized ionospheric interaction with Jupiter’s magnetic field.

They also observed other localized dark regions around the planet, including an area identified as the Great Cold Spot. This spot is thought to be a consequence of Jupiter’s magnetic field due to the polar aurorae emitting energy in the form of heat into the atmosphere, creating a cooling region on the thermosphere. Their discovery provides empirical evidence for future ionospheric and magnetic field models.  

The Importance of the Ionosphere

Until this discovery, studies of Jupiter’s ionosphere focused on the poles of the planet. Previous studies found that the ionosphere was smooth; this study, however, uncovered the complexity of the ionosphere and its interaction with the magnetic equator. Studying Jupiter gives us insight into how to understand our planet, specifically when looking at the ionosphere. Both Jupiter and Earth have a similar ribbon of interactions that winds around the magnetic equator of the planet.

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