A space station view on giant lightning

Oct 03, 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: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA considers possibilities for manned mission to Venus

Dec 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate has issued a report outlining a possible way for humans to visit Venus, rather than Mars—by hovering in the atmosphere instead of landing on ...

Fermi brings deeper focus to thunderstorm gamma-rays

Dec 15, 2014

Each day, thunderstorms around the world produce about a thousand quick bursts of gamma rays, some of the highest-energy light naturally found on Earth. By merging records of events seen by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray ...

Image: Jupiter's bands of bronze

Dec 08, 2014

This Cassini image shows Jupiter from an unusual perspective. If you were to float just beneath the giant planet and look directly up, you would be greeted with this striking sight: red, bronze and white ...

Sun's rotating 'magnet' pulls lightning towards UK

Nov 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —The Sun may be playing a part in the generation of lightning strikes on Earth by temporarily 'bending' the Earth's magnetic field and allowing a shower of energetic particles to enter the upper ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

User comments : 0

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.