Ordinary Meeting - January 2022

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The charge of the spheres: sparking studies of the planets

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‘RAS James Dungey Lecture’

Dr Karen Aplin

Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Bristol

Most of us have felt awe and wonder when experiencing - preferably, from a safe distance - the majesty of a thunderstorm. As well as its spectacular displays, lightning is a hazard, and affects atmospheric chemistry. It is associated with specific types of cloud and meteorological processes, as well as being implicated in the origins of life on Earth. For these reasons, lightning has long been seen as a significant phenomenon. However, there is more to atmospheric electricity than just lightning: its quieter and less well-known sibling exists in every planetary atmosphere as a continual flow of ions and electrons, and can form a global-scale electrical circuit with lightning acting as a “battery”. The iconic Voyager 1 mission was the first to photograph an extra-terrestrial thunderstorm at Jupiter in 1979. Since then, lightning has been detected on most other Solar System planets.

On Earth, small currents away from thunderstorms can affect clouds, interact with particles from dust or pollution and even potentially influence the weather. Similar non-thunderstorm processes may also act in other planetary atmospheres, such as Titan and Venus. In this lecture I will provide the unifying scientific background and context for the study of atmospheric electricity, and describe past, present, and future observations.

Karen Aplin is Associate Professor in Space Science and Technology at Bristol University, and Visiting Professor at both the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, and the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, University of Bath. She previously worked at the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics and the Space Science and Technology Department at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Her research programme seeks to understand and exploit electrical properties of atmospheres through novel instrumentation and experiments.

She also works on space weather, dust and volcanic ash charging, and recovery of historical electrostatic data. Her bachelor’s degree was in Physics and Philosophy at Durham University, followed by a PhD in experimental atmospheric physics at the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading. She also has a classical performance diploma from Trinity College of Music.

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