Hair standing on end during a thunderstorm is a bad sign. It means lightning is on its way. On one faraway planet, though, static hair might be the least of your worries.
The planet is HAT-P-11b. It is an exoplanet — a planet far outside Earth’s solar system — some 124 light-years away. Scientists detected a surge of radio waves from the planet several years ago. Those waves could be caused by a barrage of lightning striking 530 times as often per square kilometer (0.4 square mile) as storms do in the United States.
This is the conclusion of Gabriella Hodosán of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and her colleagues. They reported their finding April 23 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In 2009, astronomers recorded radio waves coming from the HAT-P-11 system. The radio waves ceased when the planet slipped behind its star. That suggested the planet was the source of the signal. A second look in 2010 found no radio waves.
Scientists have detected lightning on planets closer to home, including Venus and Jupiter. But they have never before found lightning on a planet orbiting a star other than the sun.
HAT-P-11b is too close to its star for astronomers to see visible flashes of light. But an infrared telescope might pick up a stockpile of hydrogen cyanide created by such electrical discharges.
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astronomy The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.
electric discharge A flow of charge, called electricity, through a medium such as a gas. Lightning is a good example of such a natural electric discharge on Earth.
exoplanet A planet that orbits a star outside the solar system. Also called an extrasolar planet.
hydrogen cyanide A chemical compound with the formula HCN (meaning it consists of a bound atom of hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen). It is a toxic liquid or colorless gas. It can have an almond-like odor.
infrared light A type of electromagnetic radiation invisible to the human eye. The name incorporates a Latin term and means “below red.” Infrared light has wavelengths longer than those visible to humans. Other invisible wavelengths include X rays, radio waves and microwaves. It tends to record a heat signature of an object or environment.
Jupiter (in astronomy) The solar system’s largest planet, it has the shortest day length (10 hours). A gas giant, its low density indicates that this planet is composed of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium. This planet also releases more heat than it receives from the sun as gravity compresses its mass (and slowly shrinks the planet).
light-year The distance light travels in one year, about 9.48 trillion kilometers (almost 6 trillion miles). To get some idea of this length, imagine a rope long enough to wrap around the Earth. It would be a little over 40,000 kilometers (24,900 miles) long. Lay it out straight. Now lay another 236 million more that are the same length, end-to-end, right after the first. The total distance they now span would equal one light-year.
planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
radio waves Waves in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum; they are a type that people now use for long-distance communication. Longer than the waves of visible light, radio waves are used to transmit radio and television signals; it is also used in radar.
solar system The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around the sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.
star The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.
static electricity The buildup of excess electric charge on some surface instead of flowing through a material. This charge buildup tends to develop when two things that are not good conductors of electricity rub together. This allows electrons from one of the objects to be picked up and collected by the other.
sun The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.
telescope Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.
Venus The second planet out from the sun, it has a rocky core, just as Earth does. However, Venus lost most of its water long ago. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation broke apart those water molecules, allowing their hydrogen atoms to escape into space. Volcanoes on the planet’s surface spewed high levels of carbon dioxide, which built up in the planet’s atmosphere. Today the air pressure at the planet’s surface is 100 times greater than on Earth, and the atmosphere now keeps the surface of Venus a brutal 460° Celsius (860° Fahrenheit).