Lightning Monitoring System Keeps Satellite Launch on Schedule



Photo credit: Orbital ATK, inc.


TITUSVILLE, Fla., Jan. 18, 2017 / — The recent launch of the CYGNSS satellites was able to continue its countdown despite fierce lightning at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just days before the scheduled deployment. Officials with NASA’s Launch Services Program were concerned that lightning would delay the mission by requiring avionic systems on the launch vehicle and payload to be tested for damage. The delay and cost of testing were avoided, however, when a state-of-the-art lightning surveillance system proved that the lightning was not as close to the launch vehicle as feared, and that transient currents induced by lightning were well within acceptable limits.

The surveillance system was designed and operated by Scientific Lightning Solutions LLC, (SLS), a member of the Lightning Safety Alliance. The system includes sensitive current and voltage sensors inside the aircraft plus exterior electromagnetic sensors to measure the effects of nearby lightning. SLS also monitored the Cape Canaveral airstrip with two of the firm’s Optical Jupiter high-speed, zero dead-time cameras that are triggered by lightning strikes.

According to Carlos Mata, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of SLS, “Optical Jupiter allows unprecedented precision in determining where lightning strikes. Our engineers immediately reviewed data collected by Optical Jupiter and provided conclusive evidence that the aircraft and rocket had not been exposed to lightning-related effects that would endanger the mission.”

CYGNSS (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) contains eight micro-satellites that will measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans, increasing the ability of scientists to understand and predict hurricanes. CYGNSS was launched on December 15, 2016 by Orbital ATK, Inc. using their Pegasus XL rocket – an air-launched vehicle mounted under a modified Lockheed L-1011 aircraft.

Commenting on a photograph taken by Optical Jupiter, NASA’s Sean Potter says, “Though the photo gives the appearance of lightning directly striking Orbital ATK’s L-1011 carrier aircraft, the strike occurred approximately 2.5 miles from the aircraft’s location beside Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s runway. The aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket were surrounded by an overhead lightning protection system (LPS) designed to protect them had a strike actually occurred in the immediate vicinity; the three masts of the LPS can be seen near the front and aft of the aircraft.”

To augment the LPS, Potter explains, “The surveillance system was designed for NASA’s Launch Services Program to document and assess potential deleterious effects of lightning strikes. The lightning surveillance system provided timely and accurate data that allowed for continuation of the Pegasus XL countdown despite numerous cloud-to-ground lightning strikes recorded that day.” He also states that, SLS provided outstanding support and was able to quickly provide information that was helpful in mitigating the concern and moving forward with the launch.”

Jennifer Morgan, an officer of the Lightning Safety Alliance, observes that, “Both CYGNSS and innovations at Scientific Lightning Solutions are important advances in meteorological science. The experience they gain with aerospace projects is helping protect life and property here on Earth.”

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