Mineral clouds in substellar atmospheres play a special role as a catalyst for a variety of charge processes. If clouds are charged, the surrounding environment becomes electrically activated, and ensembles of charged grains are electrically discharging (e.g., by lightning), which significantly influences the local chemistry creating conditions similar to those thought responsible for life in early planetary atmospheres. We note that such lightning discharges contribute also to the ionization state of the atmosphere. We apply scaling laws for electrical discharge processes from laboratory measurements and numerical experiments to DRIFT-PHOENIX model atmosphere results to model the discharge's propagation downward (as lightning) and upward (as sprites) through the atmospheric clouds. We evaluate the spatial extent and energetics of lightning discharges. The atmospheric volume affected (e.g., by increase of temperature or electron number) is larger in a brown dwarf atmosphere (108-1010 m3) than in a giant gas planet (104-106 m3). Our results suggest that the total dissipated energy in one event is <1012 J for all models of initial solar metallicity. First attempts to show the influence of lightning on the local gas phase indicate an increase of small carbohydrate molecules like CH and CH2 at the expense of CO and CH4. Dust-forming molecules are destroyed and the cloud particle properties are frozen in unless enough time is available for complete evaporation. We summarize instruments potentially suitable to observe lightning on extrasolar objects.
- Brown dwarfs
- Planets and satellites: atmospheres
- Radiation mechanisms: non-thermal
- Stars: activity