By Bob King
Earth doesn’t have a corner on auroras. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have their own distinctive versions. Jupiter’s are massive and powerful; Martian auroras patchy and weak.
Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons that originate with solar winds and in the case of Jupiter, volcanic gases spewed by the moon Io. Whether solar particles or volcanic sulfur, the material gets caught in powerful magnetic fields surrounding a planet and channeled into the upper atmosphere. There, the particles interact with atmospheric gases such as oxygen or nitrogen and spectacular bursts of light result. With Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus excited hydrogen is responsible for the show.
Auroras on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn have been well-studied but not so on the ice-giant planet Uranus. In 2011, the Hubble Space Telescope took the first-ever image of the auroras on Uranus. Then in 2012 and 2014 a team from the Paris Observatory took a second look at the auroras in ultraviolet light using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) installed on Hubble.
Two powerful bursts of solar wind traveling from the sun to Uranus stoked the most intense auroras ever observed on the planet in those years. By watching the auroras over time, the team discovered that these powerful shimmering regions rotate with the planet. They also re-discovered Uranus’ long-lost magnetic poles, which were lost shortly after their discovery by Voyager 2 in 1986 due to uncertainties in measurements and the fact that the planet’s surface is practically featureless. Imagine trying to find the north and south poles of a cue ball. Yeah, something like that.
In both photos, the auroras look like glowing dots or patchy spots. Because Uranus’ magnetic field is inclined 59° to its spin axis (remember, this is the planet that rotates on its side!) , the auroral spots appear far from the planet’s north and south geographic poles. They almost look random but of course they’re not. In 2011, the spots lie close to the planet’s north magnetic pole, and in 2012 and 2014, near the south magnetic pole — just like auroras on Earth.
An auroral display can last for hours here on the home planet, but in the case of the 2011 Uranian lights, they pulsed for just minutes before fading away.