NASA was unable to launch its next-generation lunar rocket on the launch pad in 2022. Dealing with some rough and ugly Florida weather. As the rocket waited for its launch rehearsal, a storm system filled with rain and lightning moved menacingly towards it. Lightning struck the launch site four times during storms.
Fortunately, NASA has protected the pad with its lightning towers—giant metal structures designed to attract lightning and carry the charge safely to Earth. The original design and concept of the lightning tower has not changed much since its invention in 1821. Scientists in northeastern Switzerland are now experimenting with a new kind of lightning tower.
Cue Dr. Evil’s voice: freakin giant lasers.
In a study It was published Monday in the journal Nature PhotonicsResearchers describe their efforts to direct lightning using a laser beam at Mount Santis, at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet.
In Santis, scientists installed a fast pulse laser about the size and weight of a car next to a communications tower. Between July and September of that year, the picosecond laser—which fires about 1,000 pulses every second—was powered through more than 6 hours of thunderstorm activity. The comms tower was struck at least 16 times during the observation. Four of these were during laser activity. (Yes, lightning strikes twice…and sometimes more.)
This detail capture shows a particular hit that occurred on July 24, 2021. The sky was clear for high-speed cameras, which captured the lightning strike at 50 meters (about 135 feet) distance. The facility also has a VHF interferometer that can measure electromagnetic wave activity. It was also possible to measure X-rays from many laser-guided hits.
Lightning is a complex phenomenon caused by an imbalance between positive and negative charges in storm clouds and ground. It doesn’t always travel from a cloud or ground to another. Lightning often travels upwards. The team observed that lightning strikes in Santis were mostly upward strikes. This is consistent with other strikes in the area.
Researchers note that lightning strikes with laser pulses have been attempted before in 2004, 2011 and 2011. These attempts were unsuccessful so why did the Mount Santis campaign succeed?
The team concluded that the laser’s repetition rate — how fast it pulses — plays a key role. This laser’s frequency is two orders higher than other experiments. It may have allowed interception of lightning precursors that were developing above the tower. To fully understand the role of this gigantic frickin’ laser, more laser-guided lightning campaigns are needed.
This is a good thing. There are about 40 to 120 lightning strikes every second on Earth. This means that there’s a fair amount of infrastructure, human life, and the surrounding area that needs protection. The fact that lightning risks to humanity will increase due to climate change, increased urbanization, and increasing population is another factor. According to a 2018 paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Lasers come with their own problems. Lasers shouldn’t be used in active airspace. The researchers also noted that the laser was only used when the airspace was closed. This paper nevertheless notes that it is an important first step towards developing new protection methods to protect airports, launchpads, and large infrastructures.
NASA’s next mission to the moon might not be as afraid of Florida weather.
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