Interdisciplinary thinking: Atmospheric electrification in the Solar System and beyond

According to Wikipedia, interdisciplinarity involves the contribution of two or more academic disciplines to allow progress through recognition of different ways of thinking. Driven by curiosity, a group of researchers from the disciplines of plasma physics, meteorology, volcanology and astrophysics (observations and modelling of brown dwarfs, exoplanets, protoplanetary disks) met in the Scottish Highlands in Pitlochry in 2014 to discuss their research on ‘Electrification in dusty atmospheres inside and outside the solar system’. This workshop was the inspiration for a review articles ‘Atmospheric electrification in dusty, reactive gases in the solar system and beyond’ accepted for publication in ‘Surveys of Geophysics’, which aims to stimulate a closer interaction between the communities involved. A short summery of aim and content is given here.

The last few decades have taken us from a Universe with only a single planetary system known, to one with thousands, and maybe millions, of such systems. We are now entering the time when we explore theories and results derived for the Solar System and for Earth in application to unknown worlds. As such, it is more and more important for the different science communities, in this case earth sciences and astronomy and astrophysics, to share the knowledge they have gathered, in order to combine their approaches to explore new worlds.

“Planets are the coldest and smallest objects in the universe known to possess a cloud-forming and potential life protecting atmosphere”. In Figure 1 we see Jupiter in the astrophysical context. It is compared to the coolest stellar objects, M-dwarfs and brown dwarfs, while these are compared to the Sun representing a regular star. Brown dwarfs bridge the stellar and the planetary regime as their atmospheres can be as cold as those of planets but they form like stars. The Sun, including its corona, the hot plasma surrounding it, is well studied by satellites like SOHO and HINODE. However, such high-resolution monitoring is not yet possible for Solar System planets, moons, comets and for extrasolar objects. In case we want to learn about their cold cloud-forming atmospheres, which may host electrical phenomena, we need to combine experimental work on Earth, Earth observations, modelling and comparative studies for the Solar System and extrasolar objects.

Figure1. M-dwarfs, brown dwarfs and giant gas planets in comparison. Teide 1 is an example for a late M-dwarf, GD 165B for a cloud-forming brown dwarf of spectral type L, Gliese 229B is a cooler cloud-forming brown dwarf of spectral class T, and Jupiter is the example for a giant gas plane.

Figure 1. M-dwarfs, brown dwarfs and giant gas planets in comparison. Teide 1 is an example for a late M-dwarf, GD 165B for a cloud-forming brown dwarf of spectral type L, Gliese 229B is a cooler cloud-forming brown dwarf of spectral class T, and Jupiter is the example for a giant gas plane (Helling et al. 2016).

Plasma and discharge experiments are essential in providing a controlled environment in contrast to observation of atmospheric phenomena. An atmospheric environment that is only partially ionized may show plasma character on only local scales compared to the global scale of a comet, moon, planet, brown dwarf or protoplanetary disk. Volcanic eruptions on Earth have been shown to produce significant electrostatic charging and subsequent lightning. It is also possible that similar charging mechanisms occur on Jupiter’s moon Io, for example. Understanding dust-charging processes is important for space exploration because the local ionization changes on the surface of a moon or an asteroid as a result of the variability of the solar wind hitting these objects. When a spacecraft, like the Rosetta lander Philae, lands on the surface of such objects, it creates a very similar effect. The ionization of the local environment influences the spacecraft’s operation on the object and the landing itself.

In situ measurements of the chemically active Earth-atmosphere offer insight in charge and discharge processes, their local properties, and their global changes. These measurements in the natural atmospheric environment lead to an understanding of the role of electrons, ions and dust involved in the ionization of the atmosphere. Such observations allow an understanding of atmospheric processes on Earth that can only be gained for Solar System and extrasolar bodies from intensive modelling efforts in combination with observations and experiments.

Ionization processes also have implications for industry. One example of plasma technology development is included in our review to demonstrate the impact of the theme of this paper beyond academic research. The paper gives an overview of electrification processes inside and outside the Solar System. It moves from small-scale to large-scale charge processes in different types of environments, such as the terrestrial atmosphere, the Moon and asteroids, and also extrasolar planetary and brown dwarf atmospheres and protoplanetary disks.

Interdisciplinary thinking: Meteorological balloon experiment launch (Credit: Giles Harrison); laboratory volcanic lightning experiment (Cimarelli et al. 2014); temperature variations between the day and night side of the exoplanet HD 189733b (Credit: Graham Lee)

Interdisciplinary thinking:
Meteorological balloon experiment launch (Credit: Giles Harrison); laboratory volcanic lightning experiment (Cimarelli et al. 2014); temperature variations between the day and night side of the exoplanet HD 189733b (Credit: Graham Lee)

The paper first sets the stage for the interdisciplinary exchange: it introduces the fundamental physics of charging processes, defines general terms, and shows the field of experimental dust-charging works to the reader. The next chapter explains the electrification and discharging of planetary atmospheres. Explains the role of the Wilson Global Circuit (continuous movement of electric current between the ionosphere and the surface of a planetary object), the production of thundercloud lightning and its subsequent phenomena, the transient luminous events and how the electrification of volcano plumes lead to volcanic lightning. We get an insight on the chemical changes in Solar System planetary atmospheres caused by lightning discharges. Those who are interested in the Moon or asteroids in the Solar System can learn about charging processes in the environments on these objects from the next big section. The paper finishes with the very new topic of charging in extrasolar environments, such as exoplanetary and brown dwarf atmospheres and protoplanetary disks. Each of these topics could be the core of individual blog entries. This blog can, therefore, only provide a very minimalistic introduction to the whole paper with which we hope to inspire further interdisciplinary communications.

This paper was born as collaboration between scientists from various fields of earth sciences and astrophysics. It intends to show the importance of such multi-disciplinary works. To help the readers of different background, it includes a glossary at the end.


For more details check out the original paper on ADS:

 Ch. Helling, R. G. Harrison, F. Honary, D. A. Diver, K. Aplin, I. Dobbs-Dixon, U. Ebert, S. Inutsuka, F. J. Gordillo-Vazquez, S. Littlefair, 2016, Surveys in Geophysics, 37, 705

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Electrification in dusty atmospheres inside and outside the solar system, Pitlochry, 8-11 Sep. 2014

The workshop ‘Electrification of dusty atmospheres inside and outside the solar system’ hosted by the LEAP Group took place in Pitlochry, Scotland. The cross-disciplinary nature of the workshop attracted scientists from fields of plasma physics, volcanology, meteorology, and astrophysics from all over the world.

The meeting started with a welcome barbeque on Sunday evening: people were talking in small groups, catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues.

The welcome barbeque in the garden of the hotel

_DSC1519 The welcome barbeque in the garden of the hotel (Credit: Rubén Asensio Torres)

On Monday morning Christiane Helling summarized the scientific idea that lead to the organization of this workshop: she talked about the benefits of the meeting for both astrophysicists and scientists from other fields. She also introduced a new proceeding idea, which is planned to be published in Surveys of Geophysics.

The first talk was given by Alan Phelps who discussed laboratory studies of crystalline-like ordered structure in dense dusty plasmas, with the potential to investigate similar behaviour in substellar atmospheres. In this context, the exciting possibility exists of identifying a unique observable signature associated with plasma crystals that could be used to diagnose the charged environment.

The difficulties of the inter-disciplinary nature of the workshop appeared right after the first talk when it turned out that the definition of ‘dust’ is not the same in every field. However, after discussing the issue, the speakers and participants quickly got used to the fact that most of the people are from a different field than they are and explained their fields in a way, which was understandable for everyone.

Keri Nicoll and Corrado Cimarelli gave exciting talks on volcanic lightning. Nicoll gave an overview on the different charging mechanisms in volcanic plumes and reported that broad particle size distributions of volcanic ash clouds are more susceptible to triboelectric charging, which give an analogy to substellar clouds with atmospheric regions with the appropriate particle size distribution. Cimarelli described a laboratory experiment where they reproduced volcanic lightning strikes, and explained how the particle size and distribution affects the charge separations on plumes.

Euan Bennet’s talk on isolating different sized bacteria using electrostatic disruption of water droplets was an interesting part of the conference. It showed some of the unexpected applications that can arise from the study of aerosol electrification.

During the afternoon session Ute Ebert introduced us into the mechanism of lightning development and gave an overview of streamer propagation. The following talks were about Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) such as sprite modelling and the possibility of TLE initiation on gas giant planets like Jupiter.

The afternoon ended with the poster pop-up, where each poster presenter was given one minute to advertise his or her work, which was followed by the poster session itself. Delicious pretzels and Guinness accompanied the session.


_DSC1623 Poster session (Credit: Rubén Asensio Torres)

On Tuesday we started with a very interesting talk by Farideh Honary on Lunar dust charging and how this can affect future (and past) landing missions. Karen Aplin introduced us a similar approach but with asteroids. She raised the question of what would happen if a, possibly, oppositely charged landing spacecraft (negatively charged) and the surface of an asteroid (positively charged) interact with each other and showed a model of how the electrostatic effects can be best measured in situ.

The afternoon session started with Ian Dobbs-Dixon’s presentation on dynamical modelling of the atmospheres of tidally locked hot Jupiters. Michael Rycroft introduced the audience to the conditions a planet would need in order to host a global electric circuit.

In the evening we had the workshop dinner in the hotel. In a short dinner speech, Christiane Helling also thanked all the participants for their exciting contributions to the workshop. Towards the end of the dinner Craig Stark announced the winners of the poster contest, Graham Lee and Karen Aplin. Congratulations!

Wednesday was the day of brown dwarfs (BDs) and ionization processes. Sara Caswell talked about two White Dwarf–Brown Dwarf systems and showed how different the spectra of the day and night side of an irradiated BD can be. Irena Vorgul gave a talk on how flash ionization processes (such as lightning) could be detected through cyclotron maser emission going through the affected atmospheric volume. Craig Stark summarized the concept of the LEAP Project, then talked about the basics of Alfvén ionization, a process where a low density magnetized plasma is hit by a high speed flow of neutral gas. He then talked about the possibility of creating prebiotic molecules (like glycen) on the surface of dust particles in plasmas. An impressive talk was given by Takayuki Muranushi, how proposed to use ion lines width for detection lightning occurring within protoplanetary disks.

On the last day of the workshop we learnt a lot about cosmic ray (CR) air showers and their ionizing effects. However, due to a change in the schedule, the first talk was about multi-wavelength observations of BDs given by Stuart Littlefair. He showed that consistent cyclotron emission detection shows very good correlation with optical observations, suggesting an aurora-like mechanism for the radio emission. There is though some variation in radiated power for different periods of rotation, which might also be attributed to undergoing transient processes in the atmosphere (like lightning).

Alan Watson talked about the work at the Pierre Auger Observatory, an ultra-high-energy CR detector in Argentina. He showed us an unusual phenomenon observed by multiple detectors and asked the opinion of the audience on the topic. Large variety of ideas came including possible lightning events, and military missile activity as well. Although the question has not been answered unequivocally, the response from the audience showed how beneficial such a multi-disciplinary meeting can be for the different scientific fields. Paul Rimmer went into the details of CR ionization in BD atmospheres and proposed the possibility of using Jupiter as a giant gamma-ray detector through the extensive CR air showers occurring in its atmosphere.

The last talk of the day and the workshop was given by Scott Gregory who showed us how stellar magnetic fields can affect the habitability of a planet orbiting that star. He also pointed out that the magnetic field structures differ for different stars.

The afternoon was rounded off with a whiskey tour and tasting in the Blair Atholl Destillery where we learnt a lot on how whiskey is made, what are the main ingredients, how is the alcohol content regulated and how much time the infusion spends in the barrels.

A few of the participants had the opportunity to tour the Blair Castle and its extensive grounds on Friday. The fresh apples and pears from the trees in the Hercules garden were especially enjoyable.

On the whole the workshop was a great experience for all of us, the talks were very diverse still related to our work in the LEAP Group. All speakers made great efforts to allow the audience to appreciate their contribution to the workshop’s theme. We had a great opportunity to meet scientists from other fields and discuss our projects, concerns, works with them.

We would like to thank all of the participants for their contribution to the success of the workshop. The high quality of the talks and posters gave an insight for the audience into the different disciplines.


Participants of the workshop (Credit: Rubén Asensio Torres)

Participants of the workshop (Credit: Rubén Asensio Torres)