The idea is that lightning storms generate copious amounts of highly charged ions and electrons, which then get stuck to dust particles, using them as miniature prebiotic chemistry factories. Of particular interest is the formation of formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and the amino acid glycine, all of which underpin Earth's biosphere.
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"These charged gases are called plasmas - like those found in fluorescent lights and plasma televisions," said Stark. "The dust can find itself immersed in the charged gases and the charged particles stick to the dust making the dust charged. The charged dust attracts onto its surface other charges from the surrounding plasma helping grow molecules on the dust surface."
At the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., this week, an unrelated study by astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope discussed observations of brown dwarf atmospheres. The infrared observatory was able to discern patchy cloud cover in the atmospheres of these substellar objects, possibly indicating huge, swirling storms.