Ionisation and discharge in cloud-forming atmospheres of brown dwarfs and extrasolar planets

Christiane Helling, Paul B. Rimmer, Maria Isabel Rodriguez-Barrera, Kenny Wood, G. B. Robertson, C. R. Stark

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Brown dwarfs and giant gas extrasolar planets have cold atmospheres with a rich chemical compositions from which mineral cloud particles form. Their properties, like particle sizes and material composition, vary with height, and the mineral cloud particles are charged due to triboelectric processes in such dynamic atmospheres. The dynamics of the atmospheric gas is driven by the irradiating host star and/or by the rotation of the objects that changes during its lifetime. Thermal gas ionisation in these ultra-cool but dense atmospheres allows electrostatic interactions and magnetic coupling of a substantial atmosphere volume. Combined with a strong magnetic field ≫ BEarth, a chromosphere and aurorae might form as suggested by radio and X-ray observations of brown dwarfs. Non-equilibrium processes like cosmic ray ionisation and discharge processes in clouds will increase the local pool of free electrons in the gas. Cosmic rays and lighting discharges also alter the composition of the local atmospheric gas such that tracer molecules might be identified. Cosmic rays affect the atmosphere through air showers which was modelled with a 3D Monte Carlo radiative transfer code to be able to visualise their spacial extent. Given a certain degree of thermal ionisation of the atmospheric gas, we suggest that electron attachment to charge mineral cloud particles is too inefficient to cause an electrostatic disruption of the cloud particles. Cloud particles will therefore not be destroyed by Coulomb explosion for the local temperature in the collisional dominated brown dwarf and giant gas planet atmospheres. However, the cloud particles are destroyed electrostatically in regions with strong gas ionisation. The potential size of such cloud holes would, however, be too small and might occur too far inside the cloud to mimic the effect of, e.g., magnetic field induced star spots.
Original languageEnglish
Article number074003
Number of pages10
JournalPlasma Physics and Controlled Fusion
Issue number7
Early online date31 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


  • Atmospheres
  • Ionisation
  • Clouds
  • Dust charge
  • Cloud discharge


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