The human race has been fascinated by lightning for thousands of years, since various ancient civilisations believed thunder and lightning were caused by the wrath of the gods. Even today, although we know there are scientific reasons for thunderstorms, many people still enjoy watching and taking photographs of lightning bolts.

Now, for the first time, a unique collection of state-of-the-art cameras and other high-tech equipment will be sent into space to take photographs of lightning in the earth’s atmosphere. The optical cameras, Gamma-ray and X-ray detectors, and fast light meters will provide the first photographs of lightning from space, thus improving scientists’ understanding of how it impacts on the earth.


Why are people fascinated by lightning?

Throughout history, people’s fascination with lightning has continued unabated. In Ancient Greece, the god Zeus was said to be the god of the sky and lightning. His signature weapon was a lightning bolt and his power was so great that he would never run out of this mighty and destructive weapon.

Citizens of ancient Greece believed thunderstorms were caused when Zeus was angry – they were his physical way of showing his displeasure. Charged with electricity, they gave him immense power over the skies, wiping out buildings and people in an instant. Thunder and lightning were phenomena to be feared and revered.

Even in modern times, many people are still fascinated by storms. Some say they enjoy the spectacular “angry” sounds, and bolts of lightning emblazoned across the sky, combined with the contrasting gentler sound of the falling rain. Others say there’s nothing in the world as powerful as a storm, with the shock and awe of lightning strikes adding to the excitement it evokes.

Some people known as “storm chasers” enjoy the often life-threatening thrills of chasing storms and taking photographs of the phenomena. There are even Twitter feeds devoted to providing real-time details of impending storms, enabling the chasers to set off and find them when they strike.

Benefits of new research

The purpose of the new research is to establish more accurate climate models, with the equipment measuring the Gamma-rays emitting from thunderstorms. Lightning can be so unpredictable that it’s hard for experts to fully study the impact it can have on the atmosphere – hence this device is being put in place to assist their research.

It will also observe and photograph high-altitude lightning effects including blue jets, red sprites and gigantic jets. These phenomena were largely misunderstood until the late 20th century. Known as Transient Luminous Events, they are visible for only one millisecond to a second.

The TLEs are nothing new. In fact, they are documented as having been observed by Second World War pilots during storms. However, because no-one understood what they were, the reports were largely ignored and there were even suggestions the sightings may have been imagined, due to stress and tiredness. Pilots were reluctant to come forward and report them, in case their credibility was put at risk as a result.

Since 1989, TLEs have been taken more seriously by the scientific world as a result of a video filmed by Prof John Winckler – a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota in the US. While testing a new video camera for research into rocket flights, he inadvertently filmed what he described as “giant columns of light” above a distant thunderstorm.

This led to research into the origins of the mysterious lights reportedly appearing above storms. Without the benefits of modern equipment, it was challenging to photograph the TLEs, although further footage exists of a red sprite rocketing into space – filmed by a time-lapse video operated by US astronauts.

How long will the research last?

The recording equipment in space (known as the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor) will be operating continually for two years. All the data that is collected will be stored and sent to earth, where it will be analysed by scientists.

University of Bath researcher Dr Martin Fullekrug has contributed towards developing the ASIM and has been studying thunderstorms and lightning for more than 15 years. He is delighted that the ASIM is now operational, describing it as the “pinnacle” of his journey into understanding this natural phenomenon.

This is the first time in history that such a technologically-advanced and detailed piece of equipment has been flown into space, providing new information on how lightning is sparked and how its properties affect life on earth.

The photographic device measures one square cubic metre and weighs 314kg. It is mounted on the exterior of the International Space Station at an altitude of 400km, circulating the globe. The new data collected from the camera and sensors will combine with data recorded by existing geostationary meteorological satellites and from earth-based observation points across the planet.

International collaboration

The launch of ASIM on 2nd April was the result of years of collaboration in international space exploration by a team of partners, including the University of Valencia in Spain, the Technical University of Denmark, the UK Space Agency, the Space Research Centre in Poland, the University of Bergen in Norway, the Danish aerospace manufacturer Terma and the Italian aerospace company OHB-Italia. ASIM was launched into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the SpaceX Falcon-9 Dragon rocket.

The dangers of lightning are very real and worryingly unpredictable – hence the continued international research into why it occurs and the damage it can cause in the event of a strike. Lightning Strike supplies and installs specialist lightning defence and electrical earthing systems across the UK. Please contact us for information on how we can provide the best lightning protection for your property.