Ever attend a wild party with flashing lights and loud music that snowballs into a dazzling moment worth remembering? That’s something like how scientists describe the chain reactions in our atmosphere that lead to lightning. In September, researchers began using the International Space Station as a platform to study the mysterious cosmic catalyst and consequence of lightning, which may actually have origins more explosive than you might guess.
The Space Test Program-Houston 4-FireStation (STP-H4-FireStation) investigation, also simply known as FireStation, will orbit the Earth for a year attached to the outside of the space station. FireStation is sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and its Space Test Program. This instrument collects data as it flies over thunderstorms, taking aim at the exciting energy exhibit to help scientists answer burning questions involving the relationship between lightning and gamma rays.
“Somewhere in the atmosphere momentarily there’s just an incredible amount of energy release and what happens in that region is something of a witch’s brew,” said Doug Rowland, principal investigator for FireStation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “You get antimatter created in the Earth’s atmosphere during this interaction, you get energetic neutrons that basically you never see in the quiet atmosphere, that you only associate with nuclear reactions, that are happening in our atmosphere whenever these things go off. That’s one of the first fundamental science reasons [to study this phenomenon]—it’s part of our planet; we don’t understand it; we want to understand it.”