Jupiter and Saturn experience lightning 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 Geophysics 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 Planetary Science Congress in France, could lead to a new understanding of electrical and chemical processes on Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.
A bolt of extraterrestrial life?
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 extraterrestrial life.
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.