Meteors May Masquerade as Lightning in the Atmosphere of Venus

C. H. Blaske, J. G. O'Rourke, S. J. Desch, M. E. Borrelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations

Abstract

Lightning in the atmosphere of Venus is either ubiquitous, rare, or non-existent, depending on how one interprets diverse observations. Quantifying when and where, or even if lightning occurs, would provide novel information about Venus' atmospheric dynamics and chemistry. Lightning is also a potential risk to future missions, which could float in the cloud layers (∼50–70 km above the surface) for up to an Earth-year. Over decades, spacecraft and ground-based telescopes have searched for lightning at Venus using many instruments, including magnetometers, radios, and optical cameras. Two optical surveys (from the Akatsuki orbiter and the 61-inch telescope on Mt. Bigelow, Arizona) observed several flashes at 777 nm (the unresolved triplet emission lines of excited atomic oxygen) that have been attributed to lightning. This conclusion is based, in part, on the statistical unlikelihood of so many meteors producing such energetic flashes, based in turn on the presumption that a low fraction (<1%) of a meteor's optical energy is emitted at 777 nm. We use observations of terrestrial meteors and analogue experiments to show that a much higher conversion factor (∼5%–10%) should be expected. Therefore, we calculate that smaller, more numerous meteoroids could have caused the observed flashes. Lightning is likely too rare to pose a hazard to missions that pass through or dwell in the clouds of Venus. Likewise, small meteoroids burn up at altitudes of ∼100 km, roughly twice as high above the surface as the clouds, and also would not pose a hazard.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2023JE007914
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Planets
Volume128
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2023

Keywords

  • Venus
  • lightning
  • meteors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science

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