NASA Firestation To Track Strange Things Produced By Thunderstorms
September 11, 2013

NASA Firestation To Track Strange Things Produced By Thunderstorms

[ Watch the Video: Firestation To Investigate Thunderstorm Tops ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is looking into the strange things that come from the tops of thunderstorms. The experiment, called "Firestation" consists of a package of sensors designed to explore how the Earth mimics a supernova during thunderstorms.

About 50 times a second bolts of lightning heat up the air to a temperature five times hotter than the surface of the sun, potentially creating dangerous situations for us here on Earth. However, above these storm clouds lie exotic forms of lightning known as red sprites and blue elves that shoot toward the heavens. In a few areas jets of antimatter fly up, which triggers the detectors on NASA's orbiting high-energy observatories. During this event, Earth is seen to mimic a supernova by producing a powerful blast of gamma-rays known as a Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flash (TGF).

“The space station's orbit will carry Firestation directly above thousands of active thunderstorms during the one-year lifetime of the experiment,” says principal investigator Doug Rowland at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "The ISS is perfect for this kind of research.”

Firestation will be using its sensors to explore the links between TGFs, ordinary lighting, and sprites. The experiment will be able to observe thunderstorms at multiple wavelengths simultaneously. It can record the radio static from lightning, measure its optical glow, and detect the gamma-rays and electrons associated with TGFs and antimatter events.

Rowland said Firestation will be observing up to 50 lightning strokes per day, at least one TGF every few hours, and a large TGF every couple of days. There are several different types of lightning, and scientists are not certain which produces a TGF.

However, Firestation may be able to solve that mystery in its first few weeks of operation.

"Gamma-rays are thought to come from the most violent events in the cosmos like stars colliding or exploding," he said. "What a surprise to find them shooting out of the cold upper atmosphere of our own planet."

Firestation was delivered to the ISS on August 3, 2013 by the Japanese robotic cargo vessel "Kounotori-4." The experiment has since been installed on the station's exterior by its robotic arm, and all the sensors were checked out at the end of August. NASA said Firestorm will begin its experiment in early September 2013.

Firefly, the predecessor to Firestation, is a CubeSat that carries a gamma-ray detector along with another suite of instruments to help detect lightning. Its purpose was to provide the first direct evidence for a relationship between lightning and TGFs. FireStation orbits higher than Firefly, giving it a wider view of the Earth and its TGFs.