What’s particularly interesting about Jupiter is that aurora are influenced by its moon IO, which provides charged particles to the gas giant’s magnetosphere. Scientists think similar processes could be responsible for radio emissions beyond our solar system. Researchers using the Low-Frequency Array radio telescope in the Netherlands recently observed emissions they say could be caused by powerful auroras. “Beefed up versions of the auroral processes on Jupiter are able to account for the radio emissions observed from certain ‘ultra cool dwarfs’ – failed stars which lie in between planets and stars in terms of mass,” said Jonathan Nichols at the University of Leicester, and lead researcher on the study.
If true, the implications of these findings could be enormous for aurora research. “You can learn about Earth by looking at Jupiter, and then compare Jupiter to more distant cosmic bodies,” says Nichols, “This is exciting because it helps us to understand how exoplanets behave.”
Astronomers are uncovering possible planets outside our galaxy at a tremendous rate – thanks to efforts like the Kepler Space Telescope the number of known exoplanets has risen past 900, with more than 2,700 candidates waiting to be confirmed. If we can detect radio emissions causing aurora on planets outside our solar system, this could reveal information about exoplanets that can’t currently be uncovered by other methods. It could tell us information such as the length of a planet’s day, how it interacts with its parent star and the strength of its magnetic field. There’s another, even more exciting possibility. Knowing how important the magnetic field is for protecting us on Earth, detecting aurora outside of our solar system could have implications with regards to identifying possible habitable planets.
Back in Inari, the group hurriedly take pictures as the intensity of the aurora display increases. Green and blue colours start to appear, and dance around the sky. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, the freezing temperatures, late night and expense seem to be worth it, as nature has played ball this time. However, as I look up at the glowing sky, I think about how the science behind what we are witnessing reaches beyond the seemingly simple explanation of what causes the display. Auroras are still a source a sense of wonder for scientists, as we are trying to learn more about our own planet and others elsewhere in the universe. Like the trip to see the Northern Lights forms part of many people’s life checklists, perhaps sometime in the future aurora hunting around the solar system could become an item to check off on an intergalactic bucket list.