Lightning sprites are out-of-this-world

November 21, 2011, Tel Aviv University
This is a sprite "streamer" as it might appear in the atmosphere of Saturn, created in a Tel Aviv University lab. Credit: American Friends of Tel Aviv University (AFTAU)

Only a few decades ago, scientists discovered the existence of "sprites" 30 to 55 miles above the surface of the Earth. They're offshoots of electric discharges caused by lightning storms, and a valuable window into the composition of our atmosphere. Now researchers at Tel Aviv University say that sprites are not a phenomenon specific to our planet.

Jupiter and Saturn experience storms with flashes 1,000 or more times more powerful than those on Earth, says Ph.D. student Daria Dubrovin. With her supervisors Prof. Colin Price of TAU's Department of and Planetary Sciences and Prof. Yoav Yair of the Open University of Israel, and collaborators Prof. Ute Ebert and Dr. Sander Nijdam from the Eindhoven Technical University in Holland, Dubrovin has re-created these planetary atmospheres in the lab to study the presence of sprites in space.

The color of these bursts of electricity indicate what kinds of molecules are present and may explain the presence of exotic compounds, while providing insight into the conductivity of distant planets' atmospheres. This research, which was presented in October at the European Congress in France, could lead to a new understanding of electrical and on Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.

A bolt of extraterrestrial life?

Though a little-known atmospheric phenomenon, sprites are quite common on Earth, says Dubrovin. Because they occur in the mesosphere — a layer of the atmosphere that is not regularly observed by satellites and too high to be reached by atmospheric balloons — the discovery of these electric discharges, which are red in color and last only a few tens of milliseconds, was a stroke of luck.

Lightning, as a generator of organic molecules, is credited for contributing to the "primordial soup" that, according to current theories, led to the emergence of life on Earth. Researchers are keen to know more about the possibility of lightning on other planets, explains Dubrovin, not only because it impacts the technological equipment used by space programs, but because it is another clue that could indicate the presence of .

To test for the viability of extraterrestrial sprites, Dubrovin and her fellow researchers re-created the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus in small containers. A circuit that creates strong short-voltage pulses produced a discharge that mimics natural sprites. Images of these discharges, known as streamers, were taken by a fast and sensitive camera, then analyzed. Quantifying factors such as brightness, color, size, radius, and speed could help researchers measure how powerful extraterrestrial lightning actually is, she notes. "We make sprites-in-a-bottle," says Dubrovin, smiling.

Continuing a legacy

Dubrovin believes that the team's predictions could convince scientists operating the Cassini spacecraft — now orbiting Saturn as part of an ESA/NASA mission — to point their cameras in a new direction. Currently, she says, there is a huge lightning storm occurring on Saturn producing at least 100 lightning discharges per second — a rare event that happens approximately once in a decade. Above the lightning-producing clouds in Jupiter's and Saturn's atmosphere, Dubrovin explains, lies a layer of clouds which partly obscure the light from the flashes. If researchers were able to obtain an image of the higher-up sprites from the Cassini craft, it would enable them to gain more information about the storm below.

TAU's research is funded by the Israeli Science Foundation (ISF) and by an Ilan Ramon Scholarship and Endowment, named after the Israeli astronaut who flew on the Columbia space shuttle, through the Israeli Ministry of Science. Part of the scientific research aboard that shuttle was on sprites, notes Dubrovin, who is happy to continue the famous Israeli astronaut's legacy.

Explore further: A sprightly explanation for UFO sightings?

Related Stories

A sprightly explanation for UFO sightings?

February 23, 2009

In legend, sprites are trolls, elves and other spirits that dance high above our ozone layer. But scientists at Tel Aviv University have discovered that some very real "sprites" are zipping across the atmosphere as well, ...

Storm elves and sprites recorded on video

June 10, 2010

A team of Spanish researchers has made a high-speed recording of elves and sprites in storms, fleeting and luminous electric phenomena produced in the upper layers of the atmosphere. Their analysis of these observations has ...

A space station view on giant lightning

October 3, 2005

Do giant flashes of lightning striking upwards from thunder clouds merely pose an extraordinarily spectacular view? Or do they actually alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere, playing a role in ozone depletion and ...

Longest lightning storm on Saturn breaks Solar System record

September 15, 2009

A powerful lightning storm in Saturn’s atmosphere that began in mid-January 2009 has become the Solar System’s longest continuously observed thunderstorm.  It broke the record duration of 7.5 months set by another thunderstorm ...

Recommended for you

Sprawling galaxy cluster found hiding in plain sight

August 16, 2018

MIT scientists have uncovered a sprawling new galaxy cluster hiding in plain sight. The cluster, which sits a mere 2.4 billion light years from Earth, is made up of hundreds of individual galaxies and surrounds an extremely ...

Hubble paints picture of the evolving universe

August 16, 2018

Astronomers using the ultraviolet vision of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have captured one of the largest panoramic views of the fire and fury of star birth in the distant universe. The field features approximately 15,000 ...

Unusual doughnut-shaped jet observed in the galaxy NGC 6109

August 15, 2018

Astronomers from the University of Bristol, U.K., have uncovered an unusual doughnut-shaped jet in the radio galaxy NGC 6109. It is the first time that such a jet morphology has been observed in a low-power radio galaxy. ...

Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

August 15, 2018

Exoplanets, planets in other solar systems, can orbit very close to their host stars. When the host star is much hotter than the sun, the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star. The hottest "ultra-hot" planet was discovered last ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ricochet
not rated yet Nov 22, 2011
I agree... also, they should point satellites at our own sprites to see what we produce... if we can find a difference between ours and the others, and if we can find a way to detect them on far-away worlds, we could maybe actually find an inhabited planet... or at least a "colonizable" world...

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.