Observing lightning with a cubesat constellation

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DENVER – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center is working with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on Cubespark, a proposed constellation of six cubesats to map lightning.

Cubespark cubesats, equipped with high-resolution optical imagers and VHF sensors, would “map not only the lightning flash locations, but map the full structure of the lightning deep within convective clouds,” Jackson Remington of the Universities Space Research Association said Jan. 9 at the American Meteorological Society conference here.

Cubespark is designed to measure the global distribution of lightning, help explain the relationship between lightning and severe weather, and monitor lightning-produced nitrogen oxides, which have an impact on air quality.

Lightning data currently comes from a variety of sources including terrestrial sensors and the Geostationary Lightning Mappers on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series. In low Earth orbit, a Lightning Image Sensor (LIS) designed by scientists at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and manufactured at NASA Marshall has been making observations since it was installed on the International Space Station in 2017.

“It’s important to point out that low-Earth orbit lightning observations are at risk,” Remington said.

LIS is scheduled to stop gathering data from the space station later this year “and there’s no planned successor of a day-night lightning imager” in low-Earth orbit, Remington said. “So, we really need to get these up there,” he added.

In simulations, the Cubespark constellation was able to pinpoint the location of lightning to within one to two kilometers over a 300- to 600-kilometer swath from the tropics to high latitudes, Remington said.

NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office is supporting the Cubespark concept through its Instrument Incubator Program.