NASA goes after lighting storms on Earth

NASA set to launch large-scale storm research project

National Weather Service
NASA this month will unleash its unmanned drone with a venerable tool mounted inside that will let it track and monitor storm lighting like never before.

The Lightning Instrument Package (LIP) will for the first time fly aboard NASA's unmanned Global Hawk drone as it flies over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 60,000 feet looking for hurricanes to dive into.  The LIP instrument has flown before; in fact it has monitored some 800 storms throughout its 15-year career, but never for 30 straight hours as it will inside the drone.

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"We'll be able to see a storm in a way we've never seen it before," said Richard Blakeslee, LIP's principal investigator and Earth scientist at the Marshall Center in a statement.   "We'll see how the storm develops over the long term, and how lightning varies with all the other things going on inside a hurricane. It's the difference between a single photograph and a full-length movie."

The idea with LIP is that NASA will be able to measure the amount of lightning produced by hurricanes and tropical storms for a continuous period of time. Lightning's connection to hurricane intensification has eluded researchers for decades, and scientists hope the upcoming hurricane experiment will help answer some puzzling questions, NASA stated. For example if scientists can figure out the ties between lightning and hurricane severity, meteorologists may be able to greatly improve their short-term forecasts. Researchers have connected lightning to everything from strong winds to flooding to tornadoes, and a few extra minutes of warning time can save lives each year, NASA stated.  

To measure the electric field in a storm, LIP uses what are known as electric field mills, devices that let scientists measure the amount of lightning a storm produces. Originally developed at NASA, the mills look like big cans -- each about a foot long and approximately 8 inches across. As the instrument flies through the air, a plate covering each can rotates, covering and uncovering four metal disks housed inside. Uncover a disk and electricity from the storm rushes in. Cover the disk and it rushes back out. The whole process converts the electrical current from DC to AC and back to DC, allowing scientists to measure how strong a storm's electric field is, and how prone to lightning it might be. A sudden shift in the strength of the electrical field allows scientists to determine that a lightning strike has occurred, NASA stated.

NASA said that in addition, a conductivity probe reveals how easily electrical current can flow through the storm to the upper part of the atmosphere. The probe is a small nose-cone shaped device with two sensor tubes attached to each side. As the plane flies near a hurricane, small electrical particles called ions rush through the tube, allowing the team to count them.

The LIP researchers gather all that data to determine how much lightning a hurricane produces and where it originates within the storm. By combining that data with wind speed, rainfall rate and other information, researchers can connect how lightning relates to hurricane intensification, NASA stated.

LIP is just one part of a larger hurricane research project NAS is conducting this summer.  That study, called Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes, or GRIP includes the Global Hawk plus two other storm chaser planes mounted with 15 instruments.

According to NASA, a suite of instruments on the aircraft will capture data on what is happening with winds, temperature, humidity, clouds, ice, lightning, aerosols and other factors inside tropical cyclones as they form and intensify, or as they fizzle and weaken. NASA will also use data from its spaceborne instruments - particularly the joint US-Japan Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite and those in the A-Train constellation of Earth monitoring satellites.

NASA and others use such lightning research for a variety of applications.  NASA for example built a state of the art lightning protection system at the Kennedy Space Center that will not only protect people and equipment but will collect strike information for analysis by launch managers.

NASA said the system, is the largest on the space compound and will feature large cables strung between three 594-foot-tall steel and fiberglass towers. Each tower is topped with a fiberglass mast and a series of catenary wires and down conductors designed to divert lightning away from the rocket and service structure. This configuration helps keep the vehicle isolated from dangerous lightning currents, NASA said. The system includes an array of sensors, both on the ground and the mobile launcher, will help determine the vehicle's condition after a nearby lightning strike.   

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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