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| Space on Jul 13, 2012

Jupiter, Saturn and Venus might have lightning sprites, too

Lightning sprites on alien worlds. Cool!

Lightning sprites are offshoots of large-scale electrical discharges that take place high in Earth’s atmosphere, above thunderstorms. They’re red in color (hence they’re sometimes called red sprites), and they last only a few tens of milliseconds. The first photographic documentation of earthly lightning sprites came in the late 1980s and, since then, thousands of sprites have been captured on film. But it’s not just Earth that has lightning sprites. In late 2011, researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) said that sprites might be found on Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, too.

Still image from the video Red Sprites & Blue Jets. This video, distributed in 1994 by the University of Alaska, popularized the term red sprite. The sprites take place 30 to 55 miles (50 to 90 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.

Jupiter and Saturn – the 5th and 6th worlds outward from the sun in our solar system – are gas giant planets. When we look at them, we’re seeing only the outer layers of their extremely thick atmosphere. These worlds experience lightning storms with flashes 1,000 or more times more powerful than those on Earth. Ph.D. student Daria Dubrovin with her supervisors and and collaborators re-created these planetary atmospheres in small containers in the lab – making what they called sprites-in-a-bottle – to study the presence of sprites in space.

Different types of electrical phenomena in Earth's atmosphere. Red sprites aren't always this shape; in fact, they come in a varied range of shapes flickering in the night sky. Image Credit: Abestrobi

A sprite streamer as it might appear in the atmosphere of Saturn, created in an Eindhoven Technical University lab. Image Credit: American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Here’s how they did it. 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.

They researchers said that quantifying various factors – such as brightness, color, size, radius, and speed – could help them measure how powerful extraterrestrial lightning actually is, according to Dubrovin.

And there’s another, even more fascinating reason to study lightning sprites on alien worlds. Lightning, as a generator of organic molecules, has been linked with the emergence of life on Earth in the distant past. Dubrovin said that researchers want know more about the possibility of lightning on other planets in part because it is another clue that could indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life.

This research was presented in October 2011 at the European Planetary Science Congress in France. The researchers said they hope it will lead to a new understanding of electrical and chemical processes on Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.

Bottom line: Earth isn’t the only planet with lightning sprites – offshoots of large-scale electrical discharges that take place high in Earth’s atmosphere, above thunderstorms. According to research announced in late 2011, the planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn might have them, too.

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