Saturn’s lightning 10,000 times more powerful than Earth’s

NASA / MSNBC

I love being in the middle of a thunderstorm – being in the center of the light, noise and heavy rain is a really exhilarating experience. But new research from NASA’s Cassini probe makes me think that maybe Saturn would be an even better place to experience a massive storm.

Why? Saturn’s storms not only have thunderbolts thousands of times more powerful than Earth’s measly zaps of electricity, but the storms can also last for months on end. The current storm being observed by Cassini has been going on for over five months now – a record for the ringed planet.

Wikipedia Saturn’s huge size obviously explains why thunderstorms are so much bigger there than on Earth, but is that the only reason? Saturn, Jupiter and the other gassy planets are actually always bound to have more huge storms like this, because unlike our planet, their atmosphere is the planet, not just a thin layer on top of loads of rock.

Cassini’s discovered some other cool things about Saturn too – a 2000-mile wide storm near the South Pole that looked like a hurricane was discovered back in 2006, and of course Saturn’s many moons are proving to even more interesting than the giant planet itself.

That’s why it’s great news that NASA recently announced that funding for Cassini will continue until at least 2010 – hopefully even longer. Go Cassini!

Scientists discover how to make on-demand lightning

Wikipedia Back in the days of ancient Greece or Rome, if someone could magically generate lightning-on-demand they’d probably be hailed as a god. Until not too many years ago most people believed that lightning and the roaring thunder that follows were some sort of warning or punishment from the heavens.

Well now scientists in New Mexico have put an end to those theories – or at least they nearly have. By firing lasers into a thundercloud they just about managed to generate a bolt of lightning. They didn’t actually manage it because their techniques aren’t yet well enough developed, but they say they should be ready before too long.

It sounds pretty cool doesn’t it, lightning whenever and wherever you want it (although obviously it only works when you’ve got a thundercloud). So how did they do it? It sounds almost like science fiction: they shot laser beams up into thunderclouds, which caused a line of gas in the cloud to become ionized – that means it was given a charge.

Wikipedia Because lightning is essentially just a huge stream of charged particles, the line of particles that the laser created acted much like a lightning rod, and it directed the flash of lightning downward. It didn’t hit the ground in this experiment because the technique used was not powerful enough, but before long scientists should have mastered the technology.

Wikipedia It’s all very well being able to generate lightning, but as with so many experiments like this you just have to wonder, well, why? Actually, it could have some good uses. By knowing exactly when and where lightning is going to strike, scientists can do their research into this deadly killer a lot more easily. It’s also going to be useful for testing how lightning-resistant new planes and power lines are.

We’ve already discovered how to create rain (well at least sort-of), and now we can make lightning. It’ll be interesting to see where weather research takes us next in the decades ahead. I bet those scientists wish they lived in Ancient Rome – think of all the special treatment they’d get now as gods!

National Geographic has an excellent interactive page showing how lightning works.

Venus: The planet where it rains acid

Venus in visible light | Image: Wikipedia

Everyone seems to complain whenever it rains here on Earth, but on Venus you might actually have good reason to moan. Instead of water Venus’s clouds are made of corrosive sulfuric acid, and if you got covered in that, chances are you wouldn’t be around very long to tell the tale.

In reality it never rains sulfuric acid (at least not down to ground level) on Venus, because it evaporates before it has time to hit the ground – in fact, surface temperatures on Venus are hot enough to melt lead.

New research from ESA’s Venus Express probe is starting to reveal some of the secrets of Venus’s atmosphere, and some of them are very surprising indeed.

Unlike on Earth, where clouds tend to move only a few hundred miles at most, sulfuric acid clouds on Venus have ben seen moving from the poles to the equator, then back to the poles again, in just a few days.

Venus Express, which is due to end its mission in May 2009 | Image: ESABut wait a minute… where does all this sulfuric acid come from? After all, Venus is sometimes known as ‘Earth’s evil twin’ because of its runaway global warming, caused by excess carbon dioxide levels.

In fact, 97% of Venus’s atmosphere is made of CO2, although there are small amounts of gases such as sulfur dioxide and water vapor.

Recently discovered by the Venus Express probe is that the sulfuric acid is created when the sulfur dioxide and water vapor rise to the top of the atmosphere and are exposed to ultraviolet rays from the Sun, causing them to react and form sulfuric acid.

Why do they rise up? That’s one of the many things that remains to be found out, hopefully during this last year of the phenomenal Venus Express mission.

Click here for an interactive guide to Venus