Researchers predict sprites on Venus, Saturn and Jupiter

Publication date
23 Nov 2011

Researchers from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) and their colleagues at Eindhoven University of Technology, the Open University of Israel and Tel Aviv University predict the presence of sprites – giant lightnings above the clouds – on Venus, Saturn and Jupiter. The researchers presented their findings at the European Planetary Science Congress in Nantes in October. Researchers at CWI now succeeded in simulating parts of sprites on Venus for the first time. Results of this ongoing research are important for equipment design for future space missions to other planets.

Sprites on Earth are known since two decades. The giant lightnings develop at 40-90 km altitude in the atmosphere and they are generated by the strong electric fields and currents from 'normal' lightning. Normal lightning is also observed on Saturn, Jupiter and probably on Venus, and the team predicted earlier that on these planets also sprites may occur. These would be seen first from space. The experimental work of this research is done at the TU/e. At CWI researchers focused on the development of  simulations and gained their first results this week with the simulation of streamers – initial sprite channels – on Venus. The theoretical and experimental investigation of this topic is suggested by the CWI. The Israeli researchers bring their knowledge of the atmospheres of other planets and the experimental work on gas discharges has been done at the TU / e. CWI researchers focus on simulations. They had their first results this week with simulating streamers on Venus.

It is a major challenge to model possible observations, since little is known about the gas discharge processes in planetary atmospheres. Atmospheric composition and temperatures on Venus, Jupiter and Saturn differ significantly from earth and from each other. The temperature on Venus is about 500 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%). Precisely because of the small addition of nitrogen the discharges on Venus can be seen; in pure carbon dioxide they would have been nearly invisible. In further investigations the researchers will focus on simulations of Saturn and Jupiter.

The studies by Ute Ebert of CWI and her colleagues are in the forefront of international research. She is head of the Multiscale Modelling and Nonlinear Dynamics research group at CWI, and is also a professor at the TU/e. In 2009, she and colleagues from CWI explained for the first time the origin of sprites above thunderstorms on Earth, with help of simulations. Ebert and her colleagues have conducted research on predicting and measuring the electric discharges above the thunder storm clouds on Venus, Jupiter and Saturn for several years.

Picture: Artist's impression of lightning on Venus. Source: ESA.


More information:

- Ute Ebert's homepage:

Earlier publications on the ongoing research:

- A study on the possibility of sprites in the atmospheres of other planets, Y. Yair, Y. Takahashi, R. Yaniv, U. Ebert, Y. Goto, J. Geophys. Res. 114, E09002 (2009), covered in Alien sprites, Research Highlight in Nature, 17 sept. 2009.

- Proceedings of EPSC-DPS, Nantes, France, Oct. 2011: Detectability of sprites above lightning storms on the giant planets, by D. Dubrovin, Y. Yair, Y. Takahashi, C. Price, S. Nijdam, E.M. van Veldhuizen, U. Ebert;

- Recent press release from the research partner of Tel Aviv University: