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Waller Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif. (Phone: 415/604-9000) RELEASE: 90-101
July 23, 1990
PIONEER STUDIES LIGHTNING ON VENUS New research indicates that Venus may have lightning similar to that on Earth, according to NASA researcher Dr. Christopher Russell, magnetic fields investigator for the Pioneer Venus spacecraft and a geophysics professor at UCLA. Dr. Russell said previous studies had indicated lightning on Venus might be related to volcanic activity on the surface of the planet. But in a research report being published this summer in a Dutch research journal, Space Science Reviews, he said new studies now indicate the Venus lightning occurs in the afternoon, just as it does on Earth, and probably is related to cloud activity not volcanic activity on the surface. Venus is 26 million miles closer to the sun than the Earth and completely covered with clouds. Russell said an analysis of radio signal data shows there appears to be as much or even more lightning within the thick, high cloud layers of the cloud-shrouded planet as there is on Earth. The physical properties of the solid and liquid particles in the Venusian clouds as well as temperatures and atmospheric pressure also appear similar to those in Earth clouds, he said. Russell said most of the radio signal data he analyzed was obtained during the Pioneer orbiter spacecraft's 4,000 orbits of Venus from 1979 to 1990. The spacecraft is about 90 million miles from Earth. Additional visible light and radio data were obtained from Soviet spacecraft. Other scientists working on the Venus data are Dr. Robert Strangeway, UCLA; and William Borucki and John Dyer, both of NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif., which manages the spacecraft for NASA's Office of Space Science and Applications. - more - 2 -
There has been disagreement with Russell's findings. Some scientists believe it is possible that Pioneer measured local disturbances in Venus's ionosphere instead of lightning. "The predominance of the data," Strangeway said, "suggests that what we're seeing on the planet is lightning, though there are events which may not be lightning," he added. Studies of lightning on Earth also have been made using radio data like that received by Pioneer. Lightning flashes on Earth produce radio waves that circle our planet. Lightning has been reported on planets Earth, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. "It's as if you are driving in the Midwest and you hear loud static on your car radio," Russell said. "Even if you could not see a thunderstorm, you'd know it was there from the heavy static. The Pioneer data showed static regardless of what frequency we checked." Russell and others made a detailed analysis that took into account Pioneer's continuing changes in orbital altitude, the complex geometry of Venus's ionosphere and local time factors. The most significant accomplishment, they say, is tying lightning events to the local time of day on Venus and to variations in atmospheric conditions. Though the planet has very little rotation (one Venusian day equals 243 Earth days), Venus's clouds race completely around the planet once every four Earth days. Hence, cloud particles pass through the planet's day and night sides in time periods roughly comparable to times for clouds on Earth. Russell's analysis shows that Venus's thunderstorms have a strong pattern of occurrence in the Venusian afternoon and dusk periods. A similar pattern of afternoon heat build-up and resulting thunderstorm activity exists on Earth. Russell acknowledges that some unknown electromagnetic instability in Venus's ionosphere might produce radio signals. "However," he said, "we know of no possible phenomenon with regular occurrence in local planet time even remotely like what we see. No other known property of the ionosphere varies in this way. All the evidence points to a source in the Venus clouds." In addition to Pioneer data, the researchers also used a
visible-light observation of multiple lightning flashes by the Soviet Venera 9 Orbiter. They also employed electromagnetic radio data, similar to Pioneer's, from the four Venera craft which landed on Venus's surface. - more - 3 -
Unlike Earth's atmosphere, Venus' thick cloud deck is many miles above the planet (about 35 miles). There, temperatures are close to freezing, and atmospheric pressure and cloud movements are similar to those in Earth's cloud regions. As the clouds rapidly circle the planet, lightning is thought to be produced by build-up of opposite charges in the clouds, followed by discharges between clouds (lightning flashes). As on Earth, different-sized particles (often ice crystals) are believed to pick up opposite electric charges during updrafts. Cosmic ray ionization also electrifies the atmosphere. This is more likely on Venus, which is not shielded by an internally generated magnetic field as is the Earth. The thousands of Pioneer-measured radio signals exhibit certain properties found in signals from lightning strokes. The radio signals are of short duration. They occur a multitude of times on some days and then seldom on others, much like weather-related storms on Earth. Researchers currently are trying to convert the observed number of flashes per minute to a planet-wide rate, but the uncertainty as to how far the Pioneer instrument can "see" limits the accuracy of this conversion. It is clear, however, that the rate is high, probably much higher than the rate of lightning flashes on Earth. Venusian lightning appears to be in the clouds because, at 35 miles up, the clouds are too high for electrical discharges between clouds and surface, Russell said. Even on Earth, two-thirds of lightning strokes are cloud-to-cloud, not cloud-to-surface. Since the initial orbits of Pioneer Venus, a number of researchers, including the late Fred Scarf of TRW Inc. and UCLA, believed Pioneer was measuring lightning. Dr. Scarf, a principle investigator on numerous NASA missions, reported lightning bolts appeared to come primarily from the region of the planet's enormous volcanos. At the time of Pioneer's arrival at Venus, there were indications in Venus' atmosphere gases of a huge volcanic eruption, or series of eruptions. Earth volcanos are well known
to produce lightning. Russell's current analyses show no correlation between suspected Venus volcanos or between any other Venus terrain and lightning discharges. - end -
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