Lighting may have played an important role in the creation of life, according to a scientist at the University of St Andrews.

Dr Christiane Helling, one of a group of scientists from the University’s Life Electricity Atmosphere Planets (LEAP) programme, is studying whether lightning could create life on other planets.  She said that her team had “made the first steps” on the road to discovering how lightning aided the origin of life on earth.

However, she was careful to note that while the group is studying the role of lightning in triggering of life on earth, the mystery has yet to be solved in full.

Speaking to the University, Dr Helling described her work: “Atmospheric electrical discharges – or lightning – have been observed on planets other than Earth such as Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, but it is very likely that lightning also occurs outside the Solar System too.

“We studied both exoplanets and brown dwarfs, which host clouds made of minerals or gemstones, to see how much energy is deposited into the atmosphere if a lightning strike hits.”

The work required the use of several different medias. She said: “Our work combines plasma physics experiments performed in laboratories on Earth with our research into cloud formation in extrasolar atmospheres.”

One conclusion of the study was that brown dwarf planets experience lightning strikes of greater energy.

The information gathered in this study could have applications on Earth. Dr Helling said: “warning systems rely on techniques tested for a well-defined set of conditions relevant for Earth. But what if the situation changed to the extreme by some unforeseen circumstances? Applying knowledge gathered on Earth to the extreme conditions in space will allow us to identify potentially weaknesses, and thereby even save lives if extreme conditions might arise.”

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