Blasts of high-energy radiation from Earth win a spot on a satellite

By Phil Plait | August 15, 2012 12:30 pm

A few weeks ago, the small company NanoSatisfi announced a Kickstarter campaign to launch a small satellite called ArduSat into Earth orbit. This satellite would have contributions from the public both for funding and for experiments they could do on the diminutive device. Discover Magazine partnered with NanoSatisfi to run a contest where people could submit their own ideas for the satellite, and asked me to judge.

And judge I did, along with several other folks. And now we have a winner: Enrique Gomez, who wants to observe gamma rays emitted by lightning flashes on Earth! Through processes still not completely understood, the tremendous energy of lightning bolts, coupled with their incredibly focused magnetic fields, can generated bursts of high-energy light called gamma rays – it’s like the light we see, but every photon has millions of times the energy of visible light. These Terrestrial Gamma ray Flashes (or TGFs) are difficult to detect, and not a lot is known about them. Are they sent out in all directions, like light from a light bulb, or are they beamed, like light from a light house? If they’re beamed, do they go straight up, or at an angle?

Using a clever combination of instruments on the ArduSat, Gomez proposed detecting these TGFs to narrow down possible solutions to these questions. His idea was well thought-out and had solid physics backing it up, so we think it has a good chance of working on the ArduSat.

For his part, the idea that ArduSat is open source, and that the science will be made available to everyone, appealed to Gomez:

I believe all science is a "social science" in that we advance questions about nature as a community. Space science should be no exception. When I read in KickStarter about ArduSat, I knew I had to support it because it speaks to me about this belief. ArduSat is a prime example of two ideas that are worth sharing widely. The first is community supported science. People care about scientific and technological problems and thus they can gather their resources to answer them. The second is citizen science. People can not only ask scientific questions but can also work together as a community to answer them irrespective of their scientific or technical background. This is also where the open source spirit of Arduino technology comes into play by making even the technical dimension of a scientific project as accessible as possible. The project that I proposed came from my fascination with sky phenomena. There are so many mysteries in the Earth’s atmosphere between the troposphere and the ionosphere, which beg for inquisitive minds.

For his experiment, Gomez will receive a $1500 Development Kit for hardware and a week of uptime on the ArduSat to perform his tasks.

But he’s not the only one with time on the satellite: well over 100 people backed the KickStarter at a level that will give them access to the satellite in one way or another, from aiming it to take pictures up to getting a week of time on the bird.

I have to say, this is amazing to me. We live in an era where someone can take the kind of money they would spend on a decent set of clothes or a bicycle, and use it to help build and command a satellite! Between things like this, and launch costs about to drop due to private companies getting into the launch biz, I wonder what we’ll be seeing just a few years down the line?

My thanks to the folks at NanoSatisfi and Discover (and you too, Darlene!) for asking me to be a part of this.

Image credits: NanoSatisfi; NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Cool stuff, Space

Comments (17)

  1. Chris

    Fascinating. I was reading about the TGFs a few weeks ago. They put out quite a punch. So when does the satellite go up?

  2. George Martin

    By coincidence, the article Deadly Rays From Clouds in the August 2012 Scientific American discusses the formation of gamma rays by lightning. The produced gamma rays even generate electron/positron pairs.



    As this went into moderation, I saw the reply by Chris. Perhaps he read the same article

  3. Unsettled Scientist

    Nice! The Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope detects these as well. NASA has a great video showing what happens as they measure gamma ray and anti-matter creation in lightning storms.

  4. Tara Li

    I wish I had the money to contribute as much as I’d liked to have to the project – I’d like to see some study of sprites, jets & ELVES.

  5. Wzrd1

    @3, Unsettled Scientist, scientists jaws dropped when they measured the quantity of positrons from one burst, instead of a few positrons, they got around 100 trillion positrons.
    Of course, science has only known about TGF’s for around 15 years, so every measurement and additional sensor adds greatly to understanding this phenomenon. Like many of science’s developments, it started with observations of extraterrestrial GRB’s and started with “hmm, now THAT is interesting”.
    Take some electrons, give them a strong magnetic field to play in and interesting things happen!

    @Tara Li, before photographic evidence confirmed sprites and elves, the phenomena was only observed and only considered possible with nuclear detonations. Thankfully, with photographic evidence, scientists are studying those as well.

  6. George Martin

    Wzrd1 @5 says:
    Like many of science’s developments, it started with observations of extraterrestrial GRB’s….
    I am sure that Wzrd1 knows the detection of extraterrestrial gamma ray bursts started with satellites looking for evidence of nuclear weapon tests on Earth. Or, what comes around goes around OR, the importance of serendipity in science can not be underestimated!


  7. George Martin

    I said:
    can not be underestimated!

    What I think I really meant to say was that the importance of serendipity in science can not be overestimated!

    Well I could make the usual excuse that it was late when I used wrong term. Then I would have to wonder why I dwelt on this, and corrected myself even later!


  8. Wzrd1

    Quite true, George. Serendipity in science is valuable. When an odd observation is noticed and/or recorded.
    Flemming with penicillin comes to mind. Interestingly, others had noticed antibiotic effects of penicillum, but either dismissed it or publishing authorities ignored it.
    NASA’s loss of a balloon package over a thunderstorm comes to mind as well, where years after the loss, the initial theory that the thunderstorm caused the package to release at 120000 feet was updated with more current observation of elf effects.

    And yes, I’m very well aware of the discovery of extraterrestrial GRB’s by military satellites monitoring for nuclear weapons tests. I started my military career working with nuclear weapons, hence I learned a LOT of things that were initially classified. :)
    BTW, those were the Vela satellites, for anyone curious about them.
    A lot of interesting science came out of military research in trying to find new ways to harm people. Indeed, ICBM research and space exploration tends to go hand in hand in the early phases.
    It’s a pity that we can’t devote such effort instead to purely constructive research. :/

  9. Happy Heyoka

    I’m wondering if a lack of radiation hardened Arduino-compatible CPUs will fly in the ointment for this project? Atmel seems to make a number of radiation hardened devices, but the common CPUs used for Arduino boards don’t seem to be amongst them.

    I also realise that “Arduino” is a pretty broad church these days and that the nature of the mission may be that cheapness of the CubeSat may outweight the long term survival needs…?

    Perhaps someone with satellite design experience could weigh in?

    (None of this stops me thinking that is is a cool project and well worth doing)

  10. fos

    What an amazing idea and project! Science is really BAD!

  11. Utter cool things like this.

  12. Tom Terrific

    Are gamma rays defined by source or energy?

    In my physics classes the differentiation of gammas and X-rays were their source, gammas from nuclei and X’s from atomic electron shells. Of course that was when we had only four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

    I intend to stop by our library and read the SA article.

  13. The nuclear test ban monitoring satellite array has been detecting, locating, and measuring bursts of energetic radiation from thunderstorms for 50 years. It is background to be subtracted from real events. FOI demand database release.

    How sensitive? 1979, President Carter, “Racetrack.” Proposed 200 missiles eastern Nevada through western Utah in a system of multiple protective shelters linked by underground railroads. Quashed when claimed enemy satellite detecton of buried warhead location was single gamma-photon sensitive re fissile pit and DU implosion tamper and warhead casing. US Project Vela 1963 – 1989; 1970s’ Defense Support Program system; now Integrated Operational Nuclear Detection System.

    J. Geophys. Res. 82(18) 2566 (1977), doi:10.1029/JC082i018p02566
    “Detection of Lightning Superbolts” unclassified.

    A year in the lab will save you a day in the library.

  14. Andy

    Isn’t NASA’s Firefly also going to study these TGFs?

  15. CheleBele

    I’m Dr. Gomez’s Research Assistant and cannot believe we won this challenge!! I’m so grateful to be a part of such a broad spectrum of people who truly love Science!!! TGFs happen in that magical spot within the thunderstorm…our initial design for the CRD is to go inside a weather balloon payload. This is just the icing on the cake!! Now, there are TGEs or Enhancements that shoot gammas down from the thunderclouds..indeed timing is everything with the electric and magnetic fields just right, the barometric pressure and of course lightning!! Its a phenomena along with TLEs (blue jets and sprites) that inspire us!!

  16. Jonathan Ray

    The mechanism is probably this:
    Electrons get accelerated to high energies by the multimillion volt electric field. The heat-related expansion of the surrounding air increases the mean free path of the electrons, which helps a lot. Then the high-energy electrons hit other particles and produce gamma rays.


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