Though the above might sound like the title to a sequel to the feel-good hit of the summer The Fault in Our Stars, it’s actually relevant to something sciencey. You see, Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system*, has literally non-stop lightning in its atmosphere. To be fair, Earth is always experiencing lightning strikes somewhere on the planet, too, but nothing on the scale of what Jupiter does. If Jupiter were an anthill (a really, really big anthill), the ants would be lightning. Or something like that—vice versa, maybe?
Anyway, this little demonstration will help you explain to kids and anyone else who cares to pay attention just why there’s so dang much lighting on Jupiter.
No Spaceship Needed
Fortunately, you won’t need a several-billion dollar budget or the equipment and supplies for the year-plus space voyage to Jupiter.** No, all this experiment requires is a thin sheet of plastic approximately 2” x 8” (cutting one of those plastic report covers into the ideal size isn’t a bad way to go), any good sized all-wool cloth, and a darkened room.
With the lights out, grip one end of your plastic strip and wrap the woolen cloth around it. Hold the cloth securely around the plastic, but loose enough for it to slide through, because that’s the next step.
Quickly pull the plastic through the cloth, reload (if you will), and do it again about ten times. If you’re doing it right, each time observers will see sparkling bluish light amidst the folds of the wool where it touches the plastic. It’s like you’ve got a little lightning machine right there in your hand!
Let Me Drop Some Science on You!
The sparkly blue lights are caused by the transfer of electrons between the plastic and the wool material. As the plastic slides across the wool, some of the wool’s electrons rub off onto the plastic. This positively charges the wool and negatively charges the plastic. When those pesky electrons transfer from the plastic back to the wool…sparks!
The same process, on a much bigger and more meteorological scale, occurs nonstop in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Mighty winds, blowing at over 800 MPH, cause molecules in the clouds to rub against each other and the atmosphere itself constantly. As mass quantities of electrons jump from cloud to cloud and cloud to atmosphere…lightning!
- Janice VanCleave’s Astronomy for Every Kid: 101 Easy Experiments that Really Work, Janice VanCleave, 1991. ISBN 978-0471535737
* If you didn’t already know that, you probably aren’t reading a science-themed blog.
** Though, if you’ve got that stuff handy, by all means go for it. Have a nice trip!