Jun 19, 1996

Marshall Spacecraft Eyeballs Lightningfrom Space!


Revision: March 3, 2017
Scientists from NASA's Space Sciences Laboratory at the Marshall Space Flight Center are studying Earth's severe thunderstorms through the observation of lightning from space. Using the Optical Transient Detector (OTD) currently in low-Earth orbit, Space Science Laboratory scientists are producing the most comprehensive picture to date of the global distribution of thunderstorms. The experiment, launched in 1995, can observe from space lightning discharges both day and night. Furthermore, unlike the lightning detection network currently in use by operational meteorologists, the OTD detects all types of lightning, not just that which makes it to the ground. This fact is very important in the study of storm dynamics and potential use of the data for advance warning of severe weather.

Cyclones, tropical storms, and hurricanes produce lightning cues that often precede the intensification of these storms prior to landfall. We as yet do not understand why some hurricanes produce lightning while others do not. The Optical Transient Detector Mission observed lighting from numerous hurricanes during the 1995 Atlantic Hurricane Season, one of the most active in the past 30 years. OTD observations of severe storms over land have indicated promise in better understanding and predicting the development of severe storms such as tornados. Such observations and forthcoming experiments will help us determine the role that lightning plays in the complex dynamics of severe weather.

In addition to understanding severe weather phenomenon, the study of lightning has important implications for aircraft operations, atmospheric chemistry, and rainfall measurement.