A space station view on giant lightning

October 3, 2005
A space station view on giant lightning

Do giant flashes of lightning striking upwards from thunder clouds merely pose an extraordinarily spectacular view? Or do they actually alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere, playing a role in ozone depletion and the climate on Earth? This is the key question that may be answered by specially designed cameras, which ESA proposes to place on board the International Space Station.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the ideal setting for studies of spectacular natural phenomena well hidden from us on Earth - so-called red sprites, blue jets and elves: vast flashes of lightning striking not from clouds to the ground, but from clouds towards space.

Normally the word lightning makes us think of sharp zigzag lines striking from the clouds to the ground. Above the clouds however a quite different type of lightning can be seen. There lightning is colourful - mainly red and blue - and covers large areas of the upper atmosphere. Sometimes it can even reach the border between the atmosphere and space.

Over the last few years scientists from the Danish National Space Centre have studied these flashes with cameras placed on mountain tops. Every so often the cameras would catch a flash of lightning striking up from a thunder cloud at a lower altitude.

Placing cameras and other instruments on the Space Station would, however, dramatically improve the chances of seeing the giant flashes and study their effect on the atmosphere. The Danish National Space Centre is currently studying a package of instruments for just that purpose, known as the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM). ESA has now selected ASIM for a feasibility study (known as Phase A).

"The question is how are these giant flashes of lightning created and how often do they take place", says senior scientist Torben Neubert, head of the project at Danish National Space Centre.

It may well be that the large electrical bursts remove ozone from the atmosphere, and in so doing influence the climate. "We need to understand the natural processes which influence the atmosphere and this can help us decide which changes in the climate are man-made", Torben Neubert states.

It is still too early to say when the cameras will actually enter into service in space.

Source: ESA

Explore further: NASA scientists use jet to measure air quality data from California wildfires

Related Stories

Remembering the Vela incident

September 23, 2015

Thirty-six years ago today, a strange event was detected over the Southern Indian Ocean that remains controversial. On September 22nd, 1979, an American Vela Hotel satellite detected an atmospheric explosion over the southern ...


July 27, 2015

As the morning star, the evening star, and the brightest natural object in the sky (after the Moon), human beings have been aware of Venus since time immemorial. Even though it would be many thousands of years before it was ...

The gas giant Jupiter

August 26, 2015

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant known as Jupiter. Between it's constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its red spot, there are ...

Recommended for you

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

On soft ground? Tread lightly to stay fast

October 8, 2015

These findings, reported today, Friday 9th October, in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomechanics, offer a new insight into how animals respond to different terrain, and how robots can learn from them.

Blue skies, frozen water detected on Pluto

October 8, 2015

Pluto has blue skies and patches of frozen water, according to the latest data out Thursday from NASA's unmanned New Horizons probe, which made a historic flyby of the dwarf planet in July.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.