NASA’s ER-2 Uncovers Thundercloud Secrets: Gamma Rays Revealed!

September 19, 2023
2 mins read
NASA/Carla Thomas

In a groundbreaking mission, NASA’s ER-2 aircraft, a high-altitude science marvel, has ventured into the heart of thunderstorms, unveiling the intricate relationship between lightning and atmospheric energy fields. The ALOFT project mission has given us a new look at the mysterious gamma-ray flashes in thunderclouds, potentially changing how we understand these natural events.

“Thunderclouds are more than just a spectacle of nature; they are a powerhouse of energy, emitting not only lightning but also intense gamma rays,” explains Nikolai Ostgaard, principal investigator from the University of Birkeland. “Our mission with the ER-2 is to delve into the microphysics of the enormous electric field above us, aiming to comprehend the conditions under which terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) are produced and the behavior of gamma-ray glows in thunderclouds.”

Historically, the study of lightning was limited to observations from low-flying aircraft or ground-based observers. However, the ER-2’s unique capability to soar at approximately 60,000 feet (20,000 meters) offers an unparalleled vantage point, closer to the thunderclouds than ever before. This proximity is crucial, as Ostgaard points out, “If you pass a thundercloud glowing in gamma rays, it indicates an immense electric field inside the cloud.” The ALOFT team, stationed on the ground, receives real-time data from the ER-2. If an electrically glowing thundercloud is detected, the pilot is directed to circle and hover over that cell for optimal data collection.

The science behind these gamma-ray glows and flashes is akin to a battery’s operation. A thundercloud gets charged due to the electric friction between humid air and cold air crystals. This stored energy discharges as lightning, which in turn reduces the glow of gamma rays within the cloud. “Our instruments are designed with a very high time resolution, allowing us to observe a photon of a lightning flash every microsecond,” Ostgaard elaborated.

NASA collaborated with the University of Bergen, Norway, on the ALOFT project. Together, they gathered a team of scientists, pilots, engineers, and technicians at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Their main goal was to study lightning glows and terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, focusing on the areas near the Florida and Caribbean coastlines.

NASA’s Timothy Lang emphasized the significance of the data collected, stating, “The insights gathered could help scientists predict storm intensification, offering valuable lead time to safeguard the public from lightning threats.”

In addition to the primary gamma-ray detector, the ER-2 is equipped with supplementary instruments like precipitation and cloud radars and microwave radiometers. These tools offer a comprehensive view of the storm’s structures and microphysical properties, shedding light on the mechanisms driving the electric fields.

Ostgaard is optimistic about the potential revelations from this mission. “It will pave the way for a deeper understanding of lightning. The intricate relationship between gamma-ray flashes, glows, thunderclouds, and lightning remains an enigma. This mission’s findings will be pivotal for future space-based lightning mapping technologies.”

NASA’s ER-2 mission is more than just research; it’s a significant step in understanding our atmosphere. As we use advanced technology and teamwork, we keep uncovering the sky’s hidden mysteries, including gamma rays.

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