Firestation: Preparing to study lightning

November 6, 2012 by Karen C. Fox
Goddard scientists put the finishing touches on Firestation. Credit: NASA

(Phys.org)—An experiment to study the effects of lightning flashes on Earth's atmosphere has taken its first steps on its journey to space. The Firestation experiment has undergone numerous tests to make sure it's ready for flight. It left NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. in July 2012 for Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for vibration tests. From there it moved to Langley Research Center in Va. to make sure it could withstand the rigors of temperature changes and the vacuum it will experience in space. Soon it will ship to Kennedy Space Center in Fl. for a last round of communication systems testing, before being shipped to Japan for a launch currently scheduled for July 2013.

From its perch high in the atmosphere, Firestation will watch for lightning on Earth. Fifty strokes of lightning occur on Earth every second. Awe-inspiring and beautiful, lightning is also integrated into a vast atmospheric system in ways that are little understood. For one thing, they may trigger another phenomena known as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes or TGFs. Giant bursts of gamma rays have long been witnessed far out in the cosmos, but only in 1994 were they spotted closer to home, by the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) from space. In 1996, scientists began to correlate these mysterious bursts with lightning but the mechanism of how one triggers the other is unknown. Indeed, the process that creates lightning is thought to be ten times too weak to generate , so one of Firestation's goals will be to distinguish between various theories on how TGF's form.

Current estimates suggest there may be some 500 TGFs every day, and Firestation will spend a year observing them. Three instruments will help the endeavor: a , which tracks the tell tale, bacon-frying sound of lightning; an optical to observe the lightning, and a gamma-ray/electron detector. Firestation will also make use of a camera to snap pictures of lightning in progress and help pinpoint its location.

Explore further: Firestation in space to open firehose of lightning data

Related Stories

Firestation in space to open firehose of lightning data

October 19, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- When opportunity knocked, NASA heliophysicist Doug Rowland answered. He and his team recently secured another flight opportunity for a pint-sized instrument studying lightning in Earth's upper atmosphere ...

Firefly Mission to Study Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes

February 2, 2010

High-energy bursts of gamma rays typically occur far out in space, perhaps near black holes or other high-energy cosmic phenomena. So imagine scientists' surprise in the mid-1990s when they found these powerful gamma ray ...

Are TGFs Hazardous to Air Travelers?

February 11, 2010

Instruments scanning outer space for cataclysmic explosions called gamma-ray bursts are detecting intense flashes of gamma-ray energy right here in the friendly skies of Earth. These terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs, ...

A space station view on giant lightning

October 3, 2005

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 ...

Recommended for you

Giant radio flare of Cygnus X-3 detected by astronomers

December 7, 2016

(Phys.org)—Russian astronomers have recently observed a giant radio flare from a strong X-ray binary source known as Cygnus X-3 (Cyg X-3 for short). The flare occurred after more than five years of quiescence of this source. ...

Dark matter may be smoother than expected

December 7, 2016

Analysis of a giant new galaxy survey, made with ESO's VLT Survey Telescope in Chile, suggests that dark matter may be less dense and more smoothly distributed throughout space than previously thought. An international team ...

Cassini transmits first images from new orbit

December 7, 2016

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has sent to Earth its first views of Saturn's atmosphere since beginning the latest phase of its mission. The new images show scenes from high above Saturn's northern hemisphere, including the planet's ...

New evidence for a warmer and wetter early Mars

December 7, 2016

A recent study from ESA's Mars Express and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provides new evidence for a warm young Mars that hosted water across a geologically long timescale, rather than in short episodic bursts ...

ExoMars orbiter images Phobos

December 7, 2016

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has imaged the martian moon Phobos as part of a second set of test science measurements made since it arrived at the Red Planet on 19 October.

0 comments

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.