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Atmospheric Static

Atmospheric Static

A build up of electrostatic charge in an atmosphere, then a rapid discharge resulting in a flash of light that juts across the sky... lightning. Anywhere there is an atmosphere, potentially there is lightning. Lightning has been observed throughout the solar system, and we are just starting to learn about the variations of lightning from planet to planet. For example, Venus. Recent research by the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Venus Express spacecraft has revealed visible flashes in the atmosphere of that planet's sulfuric acid clouds, and localized emissions of radio waves have been observed. What about our own planet Earth? We definitely know Earth has lightning, and it is our own closest laboratory to learn how lightning works. Mars. Mars' vast dust storms and volcanic activity are potential sources of lightning. Lightning strike patterns have even been observed with spacecraft imaging.

The outer gas giants are also large scale lightning factories. Lightning has been directly observed on Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. Recent data from the Cassini spacecraft show that the formation of Saturn's ring spokes may be created by lightning-induced electron beams. Even Saturn's moon Titan, which has a very thick hydrocarbon atmosphere, has the potential for lightning, although none has been observed yet. As Voyager 2 cruised past Uranus, static discharges were detected that indicate lightning.

Another interesting result of lightning may be the formation of biomolecules, the precursors of life. A laboratory experiment conducted in 1953 using electrical discharge and simple molecules available in an early-Earthlike environment demonstrated that life essential molecules can developed with the help of lightning.

The Cassini spacecraft currently observes the lightning-filled atmosphere of Saturn, and it sent the Huygen's probe through the atmosphere of Titan in 2005. The Cassini spacecraft also makes frequent passes of Titan to map its surface and possibly observe lightning in the large moon's atmosphere.

The CloudSat mission recently observed its first anniversary of orbiting Earth. CloudSat provides insights into how clouds form, evolve and affect our weather, climate and freshwater supply.

Venus Express, a mission operated by the ESA, can study Venus' acid clouds and lightning and has made some recent interesting discoveries.

Lightning flashes across the solar system. Learn more by reading the following science features such as: Weather, Weather, Everywhere? and Titan's Surface Revealed.

Fast Lesson Finder:
K-12 Activities: Search our Fast Lesson Finder to find classroom lessons related to solar system and beyond. Some activities relevant to this month's theme include Solar System Exploration Timeline Activity, Strange New Planet, Unveiling Titan's Surface, Venus: Global Greenhouse and Why Do We Explore?

Meet Rose Grymes: Dr. Grymes is deputy director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Dr. Grymes helps organize researchers studying exciting topics in astrobiology.

Main image credit: Lightning strike of Space Shuttle Mission STS-8, NASA

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Last Updated: 8 May 2007