SJAA Ephemeris December 2009 | SJAA Home | Contents | Previous | Next

NASA Space Place

Staring at Lightning

Dr. Tony Phillips

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the next generation of GOES satellites will detect the very rapid and transient bursts of light produced by lightning at near-infrared wavelengths. This image was taken from the International Space Station and shows the Aurora Australis and lightning.


There’s something mesmerizing about watching a thunderstorm. You stare at the dark, dramatic clouds waiting for split-second bursts of brilliant light – intricate bolts of lightning spidering across the sky. Look away at the wrong time and (FLASH!) you miss it.

Lightning is much more than just a beautiful spectacle, though. It’s a window into the heart of the storm, and it could even provide clues about climate change.

Strong vertical motions within a storm cloud help generate the electricity that powers lightning. These updrafts are caused when warm, moist air rises. Because warmth and lightning are inextricably connected, tracking long-term changes in lightning frequency could reveal the progress of climate change.

It’s one of many reasons why scientists want to keep an unwavering eye on lightning. The best way to do that? With a satellite 35,800 km overhead.

At that altitude, satellites orbit at just the right speed to remain over one spot on the Earth’s surface while the planet rotates around its axis – a “geostationary” orbit. NASA and NOAA scientists are working on an advanced lightning sensor called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) that will fly onboard the next generation geostationary operational environmental satellite, called GOES-R, slated to launch around 2015.

“GLM will give us a constant, eye-in-the-sky view of lightning over a wide portion of the Earth,” says Steven Goodman, NOAA chief scientist for GOES-R at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Once GLM sensors are flying on GOES-R and its sister GOES-S, that view will extend 18,000 km from New Zealand, east across the Pacific Ocean, across the Americas, and to Africa’s western coast.

With this hemisphere-scale view, scientists will gather an unprecedented amount of data on how lightning varies from place to place, year to year, and even decade to decade. Existing lightning sensors are either on the ground – which limits their geographic range – or on satellites that orbit much closer to Earth. These satellites circle the Earth every 90 minutes or so, quickly passing over any one area, which can leave some awkward gaps in the data.

Goodman explains: “Low-Earth orbit satellites observe a location such as Florida for only a minute at a time. Many of these storms occur in the late afternoon, and if the satellite’s not overhead at that time, you’re going to miss it.”

GLM, on the other hand, won’t miss a thing. Indeed, in just two weeks of observations, GLM is expected gather more data than NASA’s two low-Earth orbiting research sensors did in 10+ years.

The new data will have many uses beyond understanding climate change. For example, wherever lightning flashes are abundant, scientists can warn aircraft pilots of strong turbulence. The data may also offer new insights into the evolution of storms and prompt improvements in severe weather forecasting.

Staring at (FLASH!) Did you miss another one? The time has come for GLM.

Want to know how to build a weather satellite? Check the “how to” booklet at

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Previous | Contents | Next