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Are Violent Lightning Storms Beaming Radio Signals to Earth?

(Image: Courtesy of Photography By Troy)
(Image: Courtesy of Photography By Troy)

It turns out violent lightning storms that are millions of times more powerful than here on Earth may be guilty for the unexplained radio signals from planets.

French astronomers, in 2009, observed what they believed to be a weak radio signal coming from the exoplanet HAT-P-11b, a “mini-Neptune” which is about five times larger in size than Earth and 26 times more massive. The French team attempted to locate the signal again the following year; however they were unsuccessful, which left the phenomenon unexplained.

A team from the University of St Andrews set to solve this so far unexplained mystery. PhD student, Gabriella Hodosán from the Life, Electricity, Atmosphere, Planets (LEAP) Project, and who is leading the study, said in a statement:

If we assume that the physics of lighting is the same for all solar system planets, the researchers found that 53 lightning flashes of Saturnian lightning-strength in a km² per hour would explain the observed radio signal on HAT-P-11b, according to the university. LEAP researcher and co-author of the paper, Dr. Paul Rimmer, said:

Hodosán added:

The team was hoping to be able to observe the lightning with optical telescopes; however the powerful light emissions from the star HAT-P-11b orbits made it difficult.

Because lightning discharges involve plasma processes at extremely high temperatures, which then release a huge amount of energy, it results in chemical reactions in the atmosphere that would not otherwise occur. These chemical reactions produce molecules that can then be used as lighting tracers.

The team considered whether such enormous thunderstorm clouds produce these tracer molecules, which then could be observed by Earth-telescopes, and suggested hydrogen cyanide (HCN) to be such a potential fingerprint of lightning. This molecule could be observable in the infrared spectral band; even years after the huge storm on HAT-P-11b would have occurred, the university wrote.

Hodosán added that:

Dr Christiane Helling, the LEAP Project principal investigator, said:

The study titled: “Lightning as a possible source of the radio emission on HAT-P-11b” was published in MNRAS.

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