NASA Finds Ammonia-Linked 'Mushballs' and 'Shallow Lightning' on Jupiter

NASA's Juno mission just uncovered two exciting new findings about our solar system's largest planet.
Fabienne Lang

NASA scientists working on the Juno mission at Jupiter are having a field day. They recently discovered two new findings regarding our solar system's largest planet, which further help push forward theories regarding atmospheric dynamics for all of our solar system's planets. 

The team discovered a phenomenon called "shallow lightning" on Jupiter, as well as "mushballs" — all linked to ammonia.

Their findings were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.


What are these phenomenons?

Jupiter is home to what NASA scientists call "shallow lightning," which is an unexpected form of electrical discharge. On Earth, lightning is sparked by water clouds, whereas on Jupiter this shallow lightning is brought about through clouds coming from ammonia-based water. 

One other new finding the Juno mission discovered was "mushballs." These are "slushy ammonia-rich hailstones," as NASA's statement explains, and originate from violent thunderstorms on Jupiter. 

What's interesting about these mushballs is that they "kidnap" ammonia and water from the upper atmosphere and bring them down into Jupiter's atmosphere. 

NASA Finds Ammonia-Linked 'Mushballs' and 'Shallow Lightning' on Jupiter
Snapped by the JunoCam, these clouds are thought to be the tops of violent thunderstorms on Jupiter, Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

These discoveries open up new information about the planet as until now it was thought that these thunderstorms originated from water, and not ammonia. 

"Juno's close flybys of the cloud tops allowed us to see something surprising – smaller, shallower flashes – originating at much higher altitudes in Jupiter's atmosphere than previously assumed possible," said Heidi Becker, Juno's Radiation Monitoring Investigation lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the lead author of the Nature paper.

Becker's team discovered that the planet's thunderstorms push water-ice crystals high up into the its atmosphere, and there they encounter atmospheric ammonia vapor that in turn melts the ice. This forms a new ammonia-water solution. 

"At these altitudes, the ammonia acts like an antifreeze, lowering the melting point of water ice and allowing the formation of a cloud with ammonia-water liquid," explained Becker.

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"In this new state, falling droplets of ammonia-water liquid can collide with the upgoing water-ice crystals and electrify the clouds. This was a big surprise, as ammonia-water clouds do not exist on Earth."

NASA Finds Ammonia-Linked 'Mushballs' and 'Shallow Lightning' on Jupiter
Graphic explaining the evolutionary process of "shallow lightning" and "mushballs." Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/CNRS

Combining their newfound knowledge of both the shallow lightning and mushballs enabled the NASA team to solve Jupiter's ammonia mystery. "As it turned out, the ammonia isn't actually missing; it is just transported down while in disguise, having cloaked itself by mixing with water," explained Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

"The solution is very simple and elegant with this theory: When the water and ammonia are in a liquid state, they are invisible to us until they reach a depth where they evaporate – and that is quite deep."

Another piece of Jupiter's puzzle has been solved, which will open up more doors to new theories surrounding atmospheric dynamics. 

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