How airplanes counteract St. Elmo’s Fire during thunderstorms

Monday, August 10, 2020 - 23:31 in Physics & Chemistry

At the height of a thunderstorm, the tips of cell towers, telephone poles, and other tall, electrically conductive structures can spontaneously emit a flash of blue light. This electric glow, known as a corona discharge, is produced when the air surrounding a conductive object is briefly ionized by an electrically charged environment. For centuries, sailors observed corona discharges at the tips of ship masts during storms at sea. They coined the phenomenon St. Elmo’s fire, after the patron saint of sailors. Scientists have found that a corona discharge can strengthen in windy conditions, glowing more brightly as the wind further electrifies the air. This wind-induced intensification has been observed mostly in electrically grounded structures, such as trees and towers. Now aerospace engineers at MIT have found that wind has an opposite effect on ungrounded objects, such as airplanes and some wind turbine blades. In some of the last experiments performed in MIT’s Wright...

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