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Hunting mystery lightning from space

Thunderstorms on earth are spectacular, yet what we can see from here is only the beginning. For the first time scientists are now reaching into space, aiming to crack the mysteries of a strange electrical phenomena that occur above thunderstorms.

SpaceX-launch - 360

360-degree video from Cape Canaveral, Florida: the launch of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft with UiB technology on board.

2nd of April 2018 was a historic day for the University of Bergen. After 14 years of planning, developing and building, technology from the Birkeland Centre for Space Science (BCSS) was to be launched into space. Its mission; to learn what happens in the atmosphere when lightning strikes earth.

Launched to the International Space Station, the instruments from the University of Bergen are the first built to observe gamma ray flashes in thunderstorms. These flashes weren’t discovered until 1994, and are still largely unknown – which is why there is great excitement linked to the results of this pioneer research.

Much at stake

The great excitement is accompanied with great expectations. And some nerves. To see the SpaceX-rocket well off, a small group of engineers and scientists traveled from Bergen to Florida to observe the launch from Cape Canaveral.

“This is like our baby. We have invested so much time, effort and energy in this. It´s been sweat and tears. Finally we get to see the instruments we've developed being sent into orbit, but let’s keep our fingers crossed, there is still a lot that could go wrong”, says senior engineer Georgi Genov and Professor Kjetil Ullaland, excited and nervous a few hours before the launch.

Their “baby” have a rough time ahead. First a launch that will take it from earth into orbit in ten minutes, exposing the payload of scientific equipment to extreme G-forces and temperatures. The Dragon capsule carrying the instruments is placed in the very tip of the rocket. The next step is connecting the capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting Earth at a speed of 27,000 km/h. Then a robotic arm is to lift the instruments of the size of a washing machine onto its place and mount it outside the ISS.

“But the real test for us is actually a few days later. Then the switch is turned on, and we will see if what we´ve used 14 years to build actually works”, says Georgi, well aware this prestigious project is the largest and most expensive any Norwegian university has ever done on space science.

Countdown

Around T-minus 5 minutes the small talk dwindles away at the observation point at the NASA-facility. Waiting to watch the launch from the front row are scientists and engineers from several international universities. The instruments from Bergen are part of ASIM (The Atmosphere-Space Interaction Monitor), an advanced instrument package built to measure electrical discharges. The main contractor for ESA is Terma, and the development of ASIM has been a collaboration between multiple European companies and universities.

Three, two, one. Ignition! As the rocket carrying a broad range of science equipment roars into the sky, the representatives from the different nations contributing breaks into a load cheer. The launch is a success.

First results

Back in Norway a few weeks later, the scientists and engineers of the Birkeland Centre are relieved. Everything seems to have gone as planned.

“Everything is working and we are now receiving the first data from ASIM. We are entering the commissioning phase, trying to understand and calibrate the data we are getting”, says Professor Nikolai Østgaard, head of the Birkeland Centre.

With everything up and running he is presuming they will get data from 1,000 gamma ray flashes a year, giving them a good foundation for mapping the phenomenon for the first time.

“At this time, we don’t know the importance of the flashes, but we will measure the quantity and strength of the flashes, as well as analyzing how the processes are connected. Later we might be able to understand how the flashes influence the Earth’s atmosphere”.

This article was first published in The UiB Magazine 2018/2019. Read the Magazine online here.