New NASA system promises to keep lightning away from spacecraft launchpad

NASA is building an enormous 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.

The new structure called a catenary wire system, will be 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 will also include an array of sensors, both on the ground and the mobile launcher, will help determine the vehicle's condition after a nearby lightning strike. This can prevent days of delays, NASA said on its Web site.

The new system is being built around Kennedy's Launch Pad 39B, the location for NASA'a next generation of space vehicles: the Constellation Program and Ares/Orion launches. Pad B will be the site of the first Ares vehicle launch, including Ares I-X which is scheduled for April 2009. NASA said current Launch Pads 40 and 41 already each have lightning protection systems similar to the new version.

Ivey's Construction, the contractor in charge of building the $28 million lightning protection system, received NASA's go-ahead to proceed in September. Construction began in November with the arrival of large cranes and concrete pilings. The system's foundation will include 216 of these pilings extending up to 55 feet below ground. The massive steel towers will be partially assembled horizontally on the ground, then lifted into the vertical position by a 60-story-tall crane.

According to NASA, lightning dispersal systems have changed dramatically over the years. According to its Web site, The Apollo system, for example, was a bonded system. "A bonded structure is part of the launch structure," says Constellation Senior Pad Project Manager Jose Perez Morales. "Obviously, if you get a lightning strike, it doesn't matter how well you place your wires - you're going to get current going through the structure."For the space shuttle, the lightning protection system consists of a lightning mast on the top of each pad's service structure and two catenary wires. This system provides shielding to the space shuttle and diverts strike currents down to the ground, making it an isolated system and an improvement over the Apollo arrangement, NASA said.

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