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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The Chemistry of Lightning and Life

What chemical effects does lightning have on other planets? How does life affect the atmospheres of other worlds? The ground-breaking experiments of Miller and Urey showed that in some cases, lightning can produce the chemicals necessary for the origin of life. Did lighting succeed in starting off the chemistry that resulted in life on the Early Earth? Does it do so for other planets? These are the questions that a paper by Paul Rimmer & Christiane Helling (2016) wrestle with.

Chemistry leaves a very distinctive footprint on exoplanet atmospheres, thanks to the quantum mechanical precision of spectroscopy. Generally, the spectra of exoplanets can be determined in two ways. The most straightforward way to determine the spectrum of an exoplanet is to look directly at the object, and to observe its emitted light. This can be done only for exoplanets that are bright and far away from their host star, so that the starlight can be blocked out, leaving the planet’s light for astronomers to study. The light from the exoplanet is emitted at characteristic wavelengths, mostly in the infrared. The other way to obtain a spectrum is to look at a transiting planet, a planet that, from our perspective, passes in front of its host star, blocking out the star’s light. At some wavelengths, more light is blocked and the planet looks larger. At other wavelengths, less light is blocked and the planet looks smaller. These wavelengths are determined to exceptional precision by the quantum mechanical properties of the chemical species within the exoplanet’s atmosphere. Physics influences the chemistry, and changing the chemistry changes the light that the exoplanet emits and absorbs. Chemistry gives us a window into the lives of these alien worlds.

Some of the most interesting things in the universe are far outside equilibrium. Equilibrium is a way of describing a system by certain bulk quantities, such as temperature, pressure, volume, and available elements. If you know these properties, you have learnt a lot about the system. You know its chemical composition and its colour. But most of the interesting places in the universe exist outside equilibrium. Take Earth’s atmosphere, for example. It’s comprised of 78% molecular nitrogen, 21% molecular oxygen, and then small amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water. If the carbon held within the biomass were present in the atmosphere, then our atmosphere would be made up of almost entirely nitrogen and carbon dioxide, with virtually no oxygen or methane. Even if the biomass were not liberated into the atmosphere, all the methane would be destroyed. Methane shouldn’t exist in our atmosphere at all at equilibrium. Life keeps the methane locked out of equilibrium. Additionally, there would be no ozone layer at all. Ozone is produced when molecular oxygen reacts with ultraviolet light from the sun.

Life and light are both written into our planet’s chemistry. And not just our planet’s. Directly imaged planets have chemical features that cannot be explained without invoking strong winds carrying equilibrium mixtures of molecules into places where they are out of equilibrium, and where they are replenished at a rate much faster than they are destroyed. Some hot Jupiters indicate abundances of acetylene and ammonia that are far from equilibrium. The search for life on other worlds has just started, and is focused entirely on the detection of just the kind of non-equilibrium chemistry that indicates the presence of life. There have been a variety of chemical models used to explain this non-equilibrium chemistry, either for Earth and Earth-like planets, or for hot Jupiters or directly imaged exoplanets. The models that work for one object generally cannot be applied to an object with a completely different composition or temperature, and none of these models considers the detailed chemistry of lightning.

Fig. 1. Artistic representation of the types of exoplanets discovered (Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

Fig. 1. Artistic representation of the types of exoplanets discovered (Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

An object like Jupiter is dominated by hydrogen, with trace amounts of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, among other elements. Earth, on the other hand, is dominated by nitrogen and oxygen, with trace amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. The exceedingly thin atmosphere of Mars is primarily composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Jupiter, Earth and Mars all would have formed from the same disk of gas and dust, with the gas mostly made of hydrogen. Why do they look so different? Why does Jupiter have so much hydrogen and the Earth and Mars don’t? The most important reason for this is that Mars and Earth are too light to retain hydrogen. They probably did have a hydrogen atmosphere very early in their lifetimes, but lost it long ago. Super-Earths, rocky exoplanets that are more massive than the Earth, have been discovered in abundance, and would have sufficient mass to retain much more hydrogen.

Paul Rimmer and Christiane Helling have developed a comprehensive chemical network called STAND, that incorporates hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen chemistry, complete up to glycine, as well as simple chemistries for a variety of other species, including titanium, silicon, sodium, calcium, and potassium. It is robust for a wide range of temperatures and compositions, so that it can be applied to both hot Jupiter planets and directly imaged planets far from their host star, to rocky planets like Mars, Earth, or even to moons like Titan. Additionally, it includes UV and X-ray photochemistry, and chemistry induced by cosmic ray ionization or by interaction with other charged particles. The combination of these tools makes it so STAND can model in detail the chemistry of lightning, to determine both what observational effect it might have on exoplanet atmospheres and to determine whether lighting on different worlds might effectively open up the pathways to prebiotic chemistry.

In combination with ARGO, a photochemistry and diffusion model, STAND has been tested against various planets and exoplanets to find out whether it achieves results consistent with observation and with other models. STAND itself was also tested against laboratory tests similar to those of the Miller experiment, and found the same general trend concerning the hydrogen bonds of carbon and nitrogen, measured in the paper by a quantity called Rr. When they form mostly hydrogen bonds (Rr is small), they produce significant concentrations of glycine; and when carbon and nitrogen are bonded to oxygen or to each other instead of hydrogen (Rr is big), they produce small concentrations of glycine. This is true up until a certain point, when virtually all the nitrogen and carbon share hydrogen bonds, and none are bound to oxygen (when oxygen is bound either to itself as molecular oxygen or is in the form of water). In this case, interestingly, virtually no glycine is formed at all. This result from the paper is shown here in colour (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Mixing ratio of glycine as a function of time, for five lab simulations (Rimmer & Helling 2015)

Fig. 2. Mixing ratio of glycine as a function of time, for five lab simulations (Rimmer & Helling 2016)

The STAND network is now being compared to work from leading origin of life research groups, and is also being applied to explain the observed chemical impact of aurorae on brown dwarfs. Rimmer & Helling’s 2015 paper show how important it is to understand the connection between physics and chemistry in exoplanet atmospheres, because often chemistry is the only thing that can be determined very precisely or in much detail. They also provide the community with a new tool to model this chemistry at its most interesting, when it’s far from equilibrium.

For more details check out the original paper on ADS:

 Paul Rimmer & Christiane Helling 2016, ApJS, 224, 9R

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Electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry in substellar atmospheres

How do prebiotic molecules, necessary to the origin of life, form? What energies are needed for the formation of e.g. formaldehyde, ammonia or glycine? Do dust grains of exoplanetary atmospheres have a key role in these processes? These and similar questions were investigated by Dr. Craig Stark and his collaborators.

Dust is present all over the Universe, growing in a variety of diverse environments, for example in the atmospheres of gas giant exoplanets, where mineral dust clouds form, as earlier works of our group have demonstrated. In this atmospheric plasma the dust grains become charged and attract positive ions accelerated from the plasma. “The energy of the ions upon reaching the grain surface may be sufficient to overcome the activation energy of particular chemical reactions that would be unattainable via ion and neutral bombardment from classical, thermal excitation. As a result, prebiotic molecules or their precursors could be synthesized on the surface of dust grains that form clouds in exoplanetary atmospheres.”


Figure 1. Miller-Urey experiment

The famous experiment of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey was one of the first to show how important electricity is in the synthesis of prebiotic molecules. (Fig. 1.) They showed that in a planetary atmosphere composed of H2, CH4, NH3 and H2O it is possible to form prebiotic amino acids and other biological molecules important for life if electrical discharge is present. However nowadays scientists believe that the atmospheric composition used in the above mentioned experiment does not correspond to the one existed on the young Earth, although a recent study showed that during volcano outbursts, where reduced gases and lightning processes are also present, it is possible to produce prebiotic molecules. As our paper says: “For atmospheres more representative of primitive Earth, no significant organic molecules are produced using electrical (sparking) discharges. However, the presence of hydroxy-acids in the famous Murchison meteorite indicate that the so-called Strecker amino-acid synthesizing mechanism (triggered by a Miller-Urey-type electrical discharge) may be responsible for the extraterrestrial synthesis of amino acids.”

Why may dust grains have a significant role in the occurrence of particular chemical reactions? Because in a plasma containing dust particles the absorption of different kind of species is electrostatically driven, which means that energies can easily exceed the activation energy required for the formation of prebiotic molecules.

“Consider a dusty plasma in the atmosphere of a substellar object such as a giant gas exoplanet. The dust particles will be negatively charged and as a result a plasma sheath (an electron depleted region) forms around the particle. As a consequence, the ionic flux at the grain surface increases as the plasma ions are attracted to and are accelerated towards the grain surface. Upon reaching the surface the ions have fallen through an electrostatic potential and have been energized. In comparison to the neutral case, the ionic flux is enhanced and the ionic energy amplified, increasing the probability that chemical reactions will occur and that reactions with higher activation energies are accessible. In this way, charged particle surfaces help catalyze chemical reactions otherwise inaccessible at such low-temperatures present in planetary atmospheres.”

In this paper we investigated the energization of ions as they are accelerated to the surface of a charged dust grain. We were mainly interested in the electrostatic activation of particular chemical reactions in the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Simulations were made using an example substellar atmosphere, which was created by the Drif-Phoenix atmosphere and cloud formation code. The atmosphere was defined by the following parameters: Surface gravity (log(g)) = 3.0; effective temperature (Teff) = 1500 K and solar metalicity ([M/H]=0.0).

Figure 2. was taken from the paper. As it says, the figure “shows the mean grain size  as a function of atmospheric pressure pgas. In the nucleation-dominated upper atmosphere (pgas ≈ 10-11 bar) seed particles form with a mean grain size <a> ≈ 10-7  cm. The dust particles gravitationally settle and grow as they fall, increasing in size. In the lower atmosphere (pgas ≈ 1 bar) the mean particle size is <a> ≈ 10-5 cm.”

Figure 2.  Mean grain particle size  as a function of gas pressure.

Figure 2. Mean grain particle size as a function of gas pressure (Stark et al. 2013)

As the electron temperature increases the local electrostatic field will rise as well which will result in that the ions accelerated by this field gain more energy. The more energy the ions gain the more likely to form molecules with higher activation energies.

We used the formation of glycine (NH2CH2COOH) to give an example “of the electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry on the surface of a charged dust grain.” The following chemical sequence shows the individual steps, which lead to the formation of glycine, with the formation energies (an indicator of the activation energy of the chemical reaction)

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 14.24.12

Figure 3. Synthesis of glycine

Figure 3. Synthesis of glycine

As our results show, “high in the atmosphere where pgas ≈ 10-15 bar, the ion temperature is ≈ 600 K and the resulting thermal energy of an ion is ≈ 0.08 eV, which is lower than the energies required to form the reaction products above. However when the electron temperature Te = 1 eV the ions are accelerated to Etot ≈ 7.8 eV which surpasses the required formation energies, increasing the likelihood that these reactions will occur. At lower atmospheric pressures where it is hotter, the thermal energy can reach ≈ 0.45 eV (≈ 5200 K) and there will exist a population of higher energy ions that, once neutralized on the surface, may be energetic enough to activate the required chemical reactions to form glycine.”

We showed in our paper that in atmospheric plasma where dust grains become negatively charged, ions can be accelerated to energies high enough to produce chemical reactions which would be inaccessible via classical thermal ion and neutral fluxes. As a consequence the creation of prebiotic molecules on grain surfaces may increase significantly.

The importance of this paper is that it “establishes the feasibility of the electrostatic activation of prebiotic chemistry. This idea can be developed to explicitly model the surface chemical kinetics, describing the incoming accelerated ions interacting with the grain surface. In this way, the effect of the plasma ionic species, the composition of the grain surface and the effect of the grain charge on the resulting surface chemical reactions can be quantified.”

For more details check out the original paper on arXiv:

C. R. Stark, Ch. Helling, D. A. Diver, and P. B. Rimmer 2013, IntJAstrobio 13, 165

Also look at the press release of the paper:,233471,en.php