The science of lightning in extrasolar planets

May 1, 2014 by Gayle Cook
A thunderstorm above Unna, in Germany. Credit: smial/Wikipedia.

Scientists in Scotland are hoping to make a major 'leap' in working out whether a bolt of lightning could trigger life on planets outside the solar system.

The , at the University of St Andrews, has been studying in to better understand how atmospheres on become electrically charged.

In turn, the researchers, from the University's LEAP (Life Electricity Atmosphere Planets) group at the School of Physics & Astronomy hope to learn more about the role lightning played in generating the 'building blocks' for life.

Lead researcher Dr Christiane Helling will reveal one of her group's findings today at a major meeting involving 11,000 scientists working in the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

The researcher will talk about her work in a special session on lightning at the EGU (European Geosciences Union) General Assembly in Vienna.

Dr Helling said, "Atmospheric electrical discharges – or lightning – have been observed on planets other than Earth such as Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, but it is very likely that lightning also occurs outside the Solar System too.

"We studied both exoplanets and brown dwarfs, which host clouds made of minerals or gemstones, to see how much energy is deposited into the atmosphere if a lightning strike hits.

A lightning discharge is started by a small-scale 'streamer discharge' which can evolve into a large-scale lightning bolt.

By building a discharge model related to lab works from the University of Einthoven, Dr Helling and her team were able to study the large-scale properties of lightning in extrasolar, cloud-forming atmospheres, and how much energy would be injected by such a . They found that lightning strikes are more energetic in brown dwarfs than in giant gas planets.

"Our work combines plasma physics experiments performed in laboratories on Earth with our research into cloud formation in extrasolar atmospheres," Dr Helling explained.

"Our work tests the physical processes on Earth in non-terrestrial environments such as hydrogen-dominated atmospheres and gemstone clouds outside the , in contrast to the nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and water clouds on Earth."

The St Andrews research could help in extreme situations of lightning on Earth.

"Warning systems rely on techniques tested for a well-defined set of conditions relevant for Earth. But what if the situation changed to the extreme by some unforeseen circumstances? Applying knowledge gathered on Earth to the extreme conditions in space will allow us to identify potentially weaknesses, and thereby even save lives if extreme conditions might arise," Dr Helling continued.

As to whether the scientists are any closer to working out whether lightning could have triggered life on earth, the St Andrews scientist said, "We have made the first steps. We have started to investigate how an extrasolar atmosphere changes its chemical composition due to the energy released by lightning, which in turn increases the atmospheric temperature considerably.

"There is now the possibility of working out whether large-scale lightning discharges could occur in gemstone clouds, how big they could grow, and as a result whether such events could have triggered the formation of prebiotic molecules responsible for the origin of ."

Explore further: Cassini spots daytime lightning on Saturn

More information: Dr Helling will deliver the scientific talk on the topic 'Large-scale properties of lightning in extrasolar objects' on Friday 2 May 2014, 16.45 in room G1 at the EGU conference cite in Vienna.

The paper is available online: adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2014ApJ...784...43B

Related Stories

Cassini spots daytime lightning on Saturn

July 19, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Saturn was playing the lightning storm blues. NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured images of last year's storm on Saturn, the largest storm seen up-close at the planet, with bluish spots in the middle of swirling ...

NASA's Firestation on way to the International Space Station

August 6, 2013

An experiment to study the effects of lightning flashes on Earth's atmosphere hitched a ride to the International Space Station on Aug. 3, 2013. The Firestation experiment launched aboard a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's ...

Volcanic lightning recreated in the lab

January 10, 2014

An LMU team has, for the first time, created volcanic lightning in the lab and captured it on film. The new findings may permit rapid characterization of ash clouds released by volcanic eruptions and improve forecasting of ...

Recommended for you

Distant planet's interior chemistry may differ from our own

September 1, 2015

As astronomers continue finding new rocky planets around distant stars, high-pressure physicists are considering what the interiors of those planets might be like and how their chemistry could differ from that found on Earth. ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Interstellar seeds could create oases of life

August 27, 2015

We only have one example of a planet with life: Earth. But within the next generation, it should become possible to detect signs of life on planets orbiting distant stars. If we find alien life, new questions will arise. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.