NASA Firefly Satellite To Study Mysteries Of Lightning And Gamma Rays
A little NASA satellite named Firefly, which is only as big as loaf of bread, may help scientists uncover the mysteries of lightning.
Set to launch in late November, the Firefly satellite, funded by the National Science Foundation, will go into space to study lightning and gamma rays from above, according to an announcement from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
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Lightning may linked to Incredibly powerful bursts of energy called terrestrial gamma ray flashes, but scientists have not known the details of what initiates this occurrence.
"We can do great science with these small missions," said principal investigator Doug Rowland. "Firefly will gather up to a year of observations on the mysterious workings of lightning."
Lightning occurs about 50 times per seconds across the globe, according to NASA estimates. National Geographic, however, estimates cloud-to-ground lightning bolts to strike the Earth's surface about 100 times per second.
"Lightning is so familiar we tend to take it for granted, but we really don't know the details of how it works — even though it is a critical part of the global electric circuit and has obvious social and technological effects," said Rowland.
Firefly is what's known as a CubeSat, a very small satellite that offers a chance for quality space science at relatively low cost.
Radiation generated by lightning is so intense that it can generate antimatter and gamma rays within terrestrial gamma rays just a few miles of the ground, according to NASA.
"The idea that some of the lightning overhead may be triggered by the same processes that happen in supernovas and cosmic particle accelerators is mind-blowing," said Rowland. "I've never looked at thunderstorms the same way since learning about these ideas."
Gamma rays coming from Earth were first discovered in the 1990s by NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
"Gamma rays are thought to be emitted by electrons traveling at or near the speed of light when they're slowed down by interactions with atoms in the upper atmosphere," said Therese Moretto Jorgensen, program director for the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. "TGFs are among our atmosphere's most interesting phenomena."
Electrons needed to create gamma rays have to be moving so fast and carrying so much energy that scientists have been at a loss to explain what process near Earth could kick them up to such high speeds. Before scientists discovered terrestrial gamma rays, they thought electrons moving at such high speeds could only be generated near much larger bodies such as stars, galaxies, or black holes.
Lightning by itself is thought to be only one-tenth as strong as would be needed to accelerate the electron beams to such incredible speeds, but scientists have hypothesized that some lightning is triggered by an electron avalanche, a runaway chain reaction that pushes electrons up to these amazingly high speeds. Understanding the mechanism for what accelerates the electron beams near Earth will help scientists understand how the same process happens throughout the rest of the universe, according to NASA.
The Firefly mission involves students in an effort to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Students at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. and at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Md. are participating in the Firefly project.
The window for Firefly launch will open on Nov. 19.
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