The most intense auroral emissions from Earth’s polar regions, called discrete for their sharply defined spatial configurations, are generated by a process involving coherent acceleration of electrons by slowly evolving, powerful electric fields directed along the magnetic field lines that connect Earth’s space environment to its polar regions1,2. In contrast, Earth’s less intense auroras are generally caused by wave scattering of magnetically trapped populations of hot electrons (in the case of diffuse aurora) or by the turbulent or stochastic downward acceleration of electrons along magnetic field lines by waves during transitory periods (in the case of broadband or Alfvénic aurora)3,4. Jupiter’s relatively steady main aurora has a power density that is so much larger than Earth’s that it has been taken for granted that it must be generated primarily by the discrete auroral process5,6,7. However, preliminary in situ measurements of Jupiter’s auroral regions yielded no evidence of such a process8,9,10. Here we report observations of distinct, high-energy, downward, discrete electron acceleration in Jupiter’s auroral polar regions. We also infer upward magnetic-field-aligned electric potentials of up to 400 kiloelectronvolts, an order of magnitude larger than the largest potentials observed at Earth11. Despite the magnitude of these upward electric potentials and the expectations from observations at Earth, the downward energy flux from discrete acceleration is less at Jupiter than that caused by broadband or stochastic processes, with broadband and stochastic characteristics that are substantially different from those at Earth.
We are grateful to NASA and contributing institutions that helped to make the Juno mission possible. This work was funded by NASA’s New Frontiers Program for Juno via subcontract with the Southwest Research Institute.