Kennis over bliksem is belangrijk nu er steeds meer gevoelige windmolens gebouwd worden (Rechten: AFP/DPA/Patrick Pleul)

ASTRON begins new studies: ‘Lightning is the Wild West of science’

“Lightning is one of the most fascinating natural phenomena, but we don’t understand it yet. We need more background information,” said American scientist Brian Hare, who is collaborating with ASTRON researchers on one of the new studies. Hare analyzes data collected by the LOFAR radio telescope.

Hidden behind a thunder cloud

Hare explains that the study of lightning has been something scientists have been working on for a long time, but this phenomenon is difficult to measure. “Lightning is fast, random, and often hidden behind dark, cloudy clouds. Even with high-speed cameras, you can often see only parts of the flash of light.”

Hare previously participated on behalf of RUG in an important study on lightning, in collaboration with ASTRON. Using measurements with the LOFAR telescope, whose core is located in Exloo, he was able to show how lightning originates from a thundercloud. He made 3D illustrations at the highest resolution.

“LOFAR is the best measuring device in the world”

LOFAR offers Americans many possibilities. This is why the world joined Astron. “LOFAR can see through the clouds because of radio technology. It does not suffer from the opacity of clouds, because radio waves go right through it. LOFAR is also very fast and has a large measuring area. I don’t exaggerate when I do say that LOFAR is the best measuring instrument in the world for studying lightning.”

In the new study, Hare continues to analyze how lightning develops and how lightning grows. It can use the LOFAR upgrade that ASTRON is working on: LOFAR 2.0. This upgrade allows the radio telescope to measure more accurately and faster than it is now. He is also focusing on developing new algorithms so that he can better interpret data from the telescope.

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Climate change

Therefore, the results of the research are important to explain the phenomenon of lightning. But the new research is more important than ever for another reason: “climate change,” says Hare. “It’s likely that this will lead to more lightning in the coming years. It’s not 100 percent certain, but because of the higher temperatures, we’ll get more energy, more thunderstorms, more storms and so maybe more lightning.”

Hare also refers to the development of green energy. “Knowledge about thunderstorms is also essential for alternative forms of energy. We are getting more windmills and they are sensitive to lightning strikes. If we want to provide better warnings or forecasts, we first need to know how lightning develops and moves.” Therefore, an additional support request is pending for additional research into the impact of lightning on the Drenthe windmills.

Other habitable planets

The other new research in ASTRON is not focused on Earth’s weather, nor even that of our sun. Scientist Harish Vedantham uses the new scholarship to delve deeper into the space weather of the outer planets. Exoplanets are planets that do not revolve around our sun, but rather revolve around another star.

The role of the so-called plasma as part of space weather is important in this regard. “In our solar system, the sun sometimes emits large amounts of plasma that can damage the atmospheres of planets. This new project uses the LOFAR telescope for the first time to detect similar plasma repulsions from planets orbiting other stars.”

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According to Vedantham, our Earth is not affected by these plasma explosions because it is shielded by a magnetic field. But the big question is whether other planets like exoplanets have such a shield.

Magnetic field and space weather

“Until now, we have not been able to determine a magnetic field on an exoplanet,” Vedantham explains. “Now that we know roughly how many planets there are, we can look in more detail at their properties such as the surface and atmosphere.”

It’s part of a much larger puzzle being pieced together in the search for the possibility of life on another planet. “Answering this question is a decades-long challenge because many things must come together before life on a planet as we know it is possible.”

“These observations were not yet possible”

However, Vedantham believes that new steps can be taken. This is due to the capabilities of the LOFAR telescope. “Radio emission is the only proven method that enables us to directly detect and measure magnetic fields. Such observations were not possible until now, although we could understand them theoretically. Just because we did not have a telescope that could detect all the signals. LOFAR is The world’s most sensitive telescope within the appropriate frequency.”

The Vedantham team has been preparing for the ambitious project for 2.5 years and it could happen now. “We have conducted experiments and conceptual research showing that this is possible. For example, in 2020 we discovered a brown dwarf with LOFAR, which is a large cousin to an exoplanet. This gives us the courage that we can now take on this ambitious project.”

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wilds of the west

Hare is also keen to continue: “Lightning is the wild west of physics. So not much is known about it, anything can happen. Every time I look I see different things. We discover new things almost every day and with increasingly better accuracy.”

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