Lightning Across the Solar System

Lightning is as beautiful as it is powerful – a violent, hotter than the surface of the Sun electrical marvel. But might lightning on other planets be even more astonishing?

Consider this. When Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter in 1979, its imager captured areas nearly as big as the U.S. lit up by lightning in Jupiter’s clouds.

Voyager also captured other, less ‘flashy’ signs of lightning. University of Iowa physicist Don Gurnett is one of the scientists whose Voyager instrument detected radio waves called whistlers -- signs of lightning.

New Horizons cameras captured lightning flashes on Jupiter ten times as powerful as anything ever recorded on Earth. And recently Juno, flying closer to Jupiter than any previous mission, found that most of Jupiter’s lightning is around the planet’s higher latitudes, unlike Earth, where lightning strikes primarily over land and most intensely at the equator. Juno detected peak rates of four strikes per second -- similar to rates on Earth.

On Earth, lightning forms because colliding ice crystals and water drops inside clouds create positive and negative electric charges which become separated by convective forces. When the charges become separated enough, a lightning bolt discharges. Something similar happens on Jupiter. Gases, including water vapor, rise from deep within the planet. As they freeze, ice particles become separated from the water drops by convection, building a charge, which is discharged as lightning.

Lightning has also been observed on gas giant Saturn. In 1980-81, Voyager detected radio signals called sferics, which like whistlers are signs of lightning.

Gurnett says, “On Earth, you can hear these high-frequency radio emissions on your car’s AM radio as ‘radio static’ during a nearby lightning storm.”

Cassini recorded similar emissions at Saturn, revealing that, for strong storms, lightning occurred as many as ten times per second!

Gurnett has been involved in the search for lightning on other planets across the solar system as well.

Venus, for example, has a hot, dry atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide suffused with sulfuric acid. Could this brew become electrically charged and generate lightning? When Cassini flew by Venus twice in 1998 and 1999 Gurnett did a search for lightning with a radio instrument perfect for detecting signs of lightning sferics. However the instrument picked up no signs at all. That same instrument easily detected sferics during a similar flyby of Earth two months later, leading him to believe that there is no Earth-like lightning present on Venus.

The European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter has picked up bursts of electromagnetic waves some scientists attribute to whistlers, but others argue that the instrument’s frequency range was too low to detect the usual forms of whistlers.

Gurnett has used Mars Express’s radar system receiver to conduct a five year search for lightning associated with dust storms on Mars. That search didn’t find lightning, however, images from the Mars Global Surveyor show bright flashes in dust storms, as well as craters on Mars that some scientists believe to be evidence of lightning strikes on the planet’s surface.

Stay tuned as this electric story unfolds on .

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  • Published: 11 June 2021

Electromagnetic power of lightning superbolts from Earth to space

  • J.-F. Ripoll   ORCID: 1 , 2 ,
  • T. Farges   ORCID: 1 ,
  • D. M. Malaspina 3 , 4 ,
  • G. S. Cunningham 5 ,
  • E. H. Lay 6 ,
  • G. B. Hospodarsky 7 ,
  • C. A. Kletzing   ORCID: 7 ,
  • J. R. Wygant 8 &
  • S. Pédeboy 9  

Nature Communications volume  12 , Article number:  3553 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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  • Atmospheric dynamics
  • Magnetospheric physics

Lightning superbolts are the most powerful and rare lightning events with intense optical emission, first identified from space. Superbolt events occurred in 2010-2018 could be localized by extracting the high energy tail of the lightning stroke signals measured by the very low frequency ground stations of the World-Wide Lightning Location Network. Here, we report electromagnetic observations of superbolts from space using Van Allen Probes satellite measurements, and ground measurements, and with two events measured both from ground and space. From burst-triggered measurements, we compute electric and magnetic power spectral density for very low frequency waves driven by superbolts, both on Earth and transmitted into space, demonstrating that superbolts transmit 10-1000 times more powerful very low frequency waves into space than typical strokes and revealing that their extreme nature is observed in space. We find several properties of superbolts that notably differ from most lightning flashes; a more symmetric first ground-wave peak due to a longer rise time, larger peak current, weaker decay of electromagnetic power density in space with distance, and a power mostly confined in the very low frequency range. Their signal is absent in space during day times and is received with a long-time delay on the Van Allen Probes. These results have implications for our understanding of lightning and superbolts, for ionosphere-magnetosphere wave transmission, wave propagation in space, and remote sensing of extreme events.

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Lightning superbolts are rare and extreme events that were first identified from optical stroke data measured by a photometer on board the Vela satellites 1 , 2 , yielding between 10 11 and 10 13  W per stroke. With such high radiated power, the temperature in the core channel of the stroke must exceed the commonly accepted maximum temperature of the lightning return stroke 3 , 4 (i.e., ~3 × 10 5  K) 5 , creating a debate concerning our current understanding of the energy balance in a lightning discharge 3 , 6 . Recently, radio frequency (RF) superbolts were geographically localized 7 using the tail of the occurrence distribution in lightning energy 8 , defined as above 1 MJ (1000 times greater than the 1 kJ mean), measured by the very low frequency (VLF) ground stations of the World-Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) 9 , 10 , 11 , 12 . Interestingly, the distribution of superbolt locations and occurrence times was not equivalent to that of ordinary lightning: instead, superbolts were found to occur over oceans and seas at a much higher rate, and more often in winter 7 . The north Atlantic (west of Europe) and the Mediterranean Sea have some of the highest wintertime occurrence rates of superbolts 7 (see Fig.  1 and methods subsection Ground-based measurements of superbolts). As with any cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning flash, superbolts emit electromagnetic radiation in the very low frequency band that propagates within the Earth-ionosphere waveguide and escapes to the magnetosphere as whistler-mode waves along Earth’s magnetic field lines 13 .

figure 1

All European (gray circles) WWLLN-detected superbolts in 2012–2018, among which we highlight the superbolts measured by Van Allen Probes (RBSP) in (black circles) survey and (pink circles) burst modes. WWLLN superbolts seen in coincidence by (blue circles) ECLAIR and (red circles) both ECLAIR and Météorage ground measurements. (large pink circles) Synchronized observations from both space and ground with WWLLN, Van Allen Probes burst and ECLAIR. The red dashed circle defines a 1500 km radius centered on the black triangle indicating the location of one of the ECLAIR stations used here. The x and y axes are longitude and latitude, respectively. The map itself is made with ©Matlab Mapping Toolbox.

Here, we show superbolt VLF electromagnetic (EM) power density in space. We combine space and ground-based measurements in a unique manner to follow electromagnetic superbolt signals from Earth to space over thousands of kilometers, to widely characterize their VLF electric and magnetic wave power density in space and on Earth, to compute ground-space transmitted power ratio, and to extract statistical electromagnetic properties of lightning superbolts never before reported. We conclude that, in addition to a location bias, superbolts exhibit other properties that differ from ordinary lightning, deepening the mystery associated with these extreme events.

Superbolt electromagnetic power

Superbolts are first located world-wide by making use of the WWLLN database, with an identification of superbolts from their energy greater than 1 MJ from synchronized measurements by WWLLN ground receivers 7 . In Europe, we make use of electric field measurements from a ground measurement campaign (ECLAIR) 14 , 15 conducted by CEA as well as data recorded by the stations of the French lightning location network, Météorage (MTRG) 16 (see methods subsection Ground-based measurements of superbolts). In space, we use two instruments 17 , 18 on board the NASA Van Allen Probes mission 19 to identify superbolt electric and magnetic wave fields (see methods subsection Space measurements of superbolts) from high-definition recordings. Superbolts signals are then gathered and retained after a selective screening process (see methods subsection Superbolt detection and selection). High-resolution electric power spectral density (PSD) from a selection of 6 superbolts is shown in Fig.  2 , from space (a1–d1) and ground-based (e1–f1) measurements. The black line in Fig.  2 (a2–f2) is the wave electric (magnetic) intensity, E 2 in V 2 /m 2 ( B 2 in pT 2 ), more commonly called, the wave power, which computation from the PSD is explained in the method section. In space, burst-mode spectrograms (Fig.  2 a1–d1) show superbolt VLF waves have a clear whistler-mode descending tone over a time period of seconds, as with all lightning-generated whistlers 20 , due to frequency-dependent dispersion through the ionosphere and plasmasphere. Their PSD frequency range spans ~0.1 to ~10 kHz, with most power above 2 kHz 21 and within the first second. The sharp rising tone just prior to the descending tone shape (e.g., Fig.  2 d1 for frequencies within ~10 2 and ~10 4  Hz at t  ~ 0.4) is an anti-aliasing filter that should be disregarded. Superbolts are observed in space with a time delay of 0.1 to 0.4 s from the superbolt WWLLN recorded time that marks t  = 0. The delay corresponds to the time the wave takes to propagate away from the stroke location, along the Earth-ionosphere waveguide, and then through the ionosphere into the magnetosphere along field lines and ultimately to the satellite. In some cases, the wave propagates to the magnetically conjugate footprint and reflects back before being seen at the spacecraft (see discussion below related to the superbolt of Fig.  3 ). Event times of all WWLLN events in the satellite burst window are marked with dashed vertical lines in Fig.  2 (bottom line plots, with the superbolt time indicated in red and non-superbolt lightning signals in green). An empirical estimate of the median squared electric field at the satellite location is calculated and reported for each of these strokes 22 , 23 based on both the estimated WWLLN total energy on the ground and the distance of the event (circles in the bottom line plots). The non-superbolt median squared electric field estimates (green circles) are lower than the superbolt estimates (red circle), by >3 orders of magnitude, confirming that the detected space-based signals only correspond to the WWLLN superbolt, and are not caused by other lightning.

figure 2

a – f Show electric power spectral density and squared electric field (intensity) versus time for six different superbolts measured either ( a – d ) in burst mode in space (PSD in mV 2 /m 2 /Hz) or ( e , f ) on the ground (PSD in V 2 /m 2 /Hz). The specifics of the events are in Supplementary Tables  2 and 3 . Panel a1, b1, c1, d1, e1, f1 show the evolving power spectral density. Panel a2, b2, c2, d2, e2, f2 show the evolving wave electric field intensity. Panel a3, b3, c3, d3, e3, f3 show the average of the PSD over 1 s (in V 2 /m 2 /Hz). Dashed vertical lines in the line plots (a2–f2) show times of all WWLLN-detected lightning during that time interval. Circles in the line plots (a2–f2) indicate an estimate of the median squared electric field in space based on WWLLN-measured lightning energy (computed from ref. 22 ). The non-superbolt median squared electric field estimates (green circles) are found to be >3 orders of magnitude less than the superbolt estimates (green circle with a red contour), confirming that the detected space-based signals correspond to the WWLLN superbolt, and are not caused by other lightning. Continuous signal at ~20 kHz (e1–f1) is due to a powerful VLF ground transmitter and should be disregarded. The sharp rising tone just prior to the main whistler profile in (a1, c1, d1), best seen in (d1) at t  = 0.4 s for frequencies within 10 2 and 10 4  Hz, is an anti-aliasing filter effect with a fold over of the power above the top frequency.

figure 3

(Left) Space and (right) ground simultaneous measurements of a superbolt (1.2 MJ) detected by WWLLN with t  = 0 at 2013/01/23- UTC. In space, we display the Van Allen Probes (RBSP) burst-mode measurements versus time of a the electric field power spectral density (PSD in V 2 /m 2 /Hz) measured by EFW, b the evolution of the squared electric field (intensity) and estimated time at the satellite of all WWLLN-detected lightning strokes in the time window (dashed vertical lines), and c the satellite-detected waveform with the survey acquisition and burst integration windows. (right) On the ground, we display (with same units) the evolution of d the electric field PSD in V 2 /m 2 /Hz and of e the squared electric field, f the electrical field waveform and g its zoom. The electric field PSD ( a ) has a characteristic descending tone shape in space (between t  ~ 0.4–0.6 s) but shows a second wave (starting at t  ~ 0.6 s) that is the bounce reflection of the primary wave. The sharp rising tone just prior to the descending tone shape (for frequencies within 2 × 10 2 and 9 × 10 3  Hz) is an anti-aliasing filter effect with a fold over of the power above the top frequency that should be disregarded. The estimated median squared electric field (in mV 2 /m 2 ) (following 22 ) of all other lightning is reported in b with green circles (#2–#10) and are found to be much lower than the superbolt’s intensity and its estimate (#1 green circle with a red contour) (more detail in Supplementary Table  4 ). The superbolt frequency decreases below 400 Hz (deep in the whistler-mode hiss wave band) after 2 s ( a ). See Supplementary Fig.  6 for more detail on space measurements and Supplementary Fig.  7 for more detail on ground-based measurements.

Simultaneous ground-based and space measurement of a superbolt

The closest of the two superbolts (1.2 MJ) that we observe synchronously from Earth and space is represented in Fig.  3 (more detail in Supplementary Fig.  6 and Supplementary Fig.  7 ). The waveforms (3c and 3f) are decomposed by Fourier transform to produce electric field (3a) and magnetic field (Supplementary Fig.  6e ) PSDs. Other lightning activity (Fig.  3c ) is composed of nine lightning events identified with WWLLN, listed in Supplementary Table  4 , and plotted on a map in Supplementary Fig.  7f . Among these nine normal lightning events, event #3 is a strong 95.8 kJ stroke occurring ~2 s later. This lightning activity is also visible in space with whistler-mode waves (3a), showing good temporal alignment with the WWLLN signal and representing significant wave power (line plot in 3b and WWLLN estimated power) for times between 2 and 3 s. Nevertheless, this activity does not mask or perturb the superbolt burst-mode signal which persists for ~1 s of the first ~1.4 s of data. The superbolt signal is found to be composed of one main wave (with a 0.4 s delay from WWLLN detection time) and a second similarly powerful wave 0.2 s later (3a, 3c). The time it takes for the wave to travel from the satellite to the magnetically conjugate point along the field line at L  ~ 2.43, reflect, and return at the equator is 0.2 s. Computing the Poynting flux (see Supplementary Method  1 ), we find a change of sign between these two waves, which indicates the second wave reaches the spacecraft from the opposite side of the field line. In the absence of any other event attested by WWLLN and since the time delay is consistent with one reflection, this suggests the two superbolt’s waves have entered the magnetosphere at different latitudes surrounding the source, followed then different paths, with one wave reaching first the spacecraft and the second reaching the spacecraft 0.2 s later after bouncing at the conjugate point of the field line. This is one of the plausible and classic scenarios obtained from ray-tracing simulations 24 . The peak squared electric field measured by an ECLAIR ground station for this event is 20 (V/m) 2 1387 km (3e) from the source. The average squared electric field over its duration (1.5 ms) is 4 (V/m) 2 , about 400 times greater than cloud-to-ground lightning measured on the ground (cf. discussion below). Quantifying the power spectral density on the ground is critical for validating ray-tracing simulations that predict the wave propagation from the source to space. The ground electric field peak (Fig.  3f and Supplementary Fig.  7e ) is well resolved (at 0.08 µs from the 12.5 MHz acquisition) and presents a longer-than-average rise time (the time for the signal to go from 50% to 90% of peak magnitude), which is confirmed to be specific to superbolts from rise time and fall time statistics below. This leads to a somewhat more symmetric first peak. In space, the northern magnetic footprint of the Van Allen Probes North (3c) is 3193 km away from the superbolt location and the measured peak squared electric field is 6 × 10 −7 (V/m) 2 , for a mean value of 8.5 × 10 −8 (V/m) 2 over 1 s, about 200 times higher than for normal lightning 21 . The root mean-squared (rms) amplitude of the magnetic field (3c), essential to compute pitch angle scattering of radiation belt electrons caused by lightning-generated whistlers in space (see review ref. 25 ), is 19 pT, 19 times larger than for normal lightning 21 . However, this is not as large as some of the superbolts we discuss next.

Propagation and attenuation of superbolt electromagnetic signal

The method displayed in Fig.  3 (Supplementary Figs.  6 and 7 ) was applied to each of the 66 superbolts observed in burst mode in 2012–2018 (cf. list and characteristics in Supplementary Tables  5 and 6 ), to analyze electric and magnetic field magnitudes in space. Ground squared electric field and PSD is similarly extracted from the 368 ECLAIR ground measurements of superbolts 26 . Mean-squared electric and magnetic fields are computed over a time period starting at the WWLLN superbolt time and lasting 1.5 ms on the ground and 1 s in space. These means are then plotted in Fig.  4 , scaled by the WWLLN energy, and plotted against distance from the source in order to present a unique global view of superbolts’ electromagnetic mean power density on Earth (Fig.  4a ) and in Space (Fig.  4b, c ). We find that ground EM power decay follows an inverse power law with a power ~2 over distance, which confirms a well-known far-field decay for EM waves in free space. In space, at the equator, superbolt EM power decays with an inverse power law with a power ~1.6 over distance. In comparison, normal lightning VLF power decays with a power law varying between ~1.7 27 and ~2.3 23 when measured from space at low altitude (~700 km) (see also ref. 28 ). VLF power loss between ground and space is expected due to wave power spreading out globally in the Earth-ionosphere waveguide and attenuation of the VLF signal by the atmosphere/ionosphere during propagation. The variability of power in space among individual superbolts with similar energy and distance is also found to be large (1–2 orders of magnitude). This variability is consistent with the great variability in L-shell, longitude, local time, and season of all lightning-generated waves 21 . However, such a variability limits the utility of the power density laws of Fig.  4 and put forward the need of reliable full modeling 29 .

figure 4

a Mean-squared electric field from 2 to 5 MHz of superbolts, averaged over 1.5 ms, and measured on the ground by ECLAIR and MTRG, then scaled by WWLLN stroke energy in MJ, as a function of distance from stroke location to ECLAIR and MTRG detecting stations. b Mean-squared electric field of superbolts in space in the VLF range, averaged over a 1 s duration, scaled by the WWLLN stroke energy, as a function of the distance from stroke location to the nearest magnetic footprint (MFP) of the Van Allen Probes, from (blue circle) EFW burst mode and (red square) EMFISIS burst mode. c Same as middle for the mean-squared magnetic field. Regressions give the decay by power laws (color indicates which type of measurements are used).

Ground-to-space transmission factor

Using these empirical fall-off relations with distance, we can rescale backward the space electric PSD and forward propagate the ground electric PSD observed in Fig.  3 to the same altitude (here 300 km where the law of Fig.  4b starts) and take their ratio to obtain a transmission factor from ground to space per frequency for the VLF range reported in Supplementary Table  7 . The transmission factor is ~10 −8 in the VLF range, which represents the lower bound of recent computations 29 , noticing the latter are widely spread over orders of magnitude according to simulation parameters. The transmission factor of the second event observed synchronously is also reported in Supplementary Table  7 , smaller due to the far distance of the superbolt. These two unique and rare synchronous cases we report can serve for modeling the VLF wave emission by ray-tracing, starting from the source in the atmosphere and reaching the magnetic equator in space, which has important applications for radiation belt modeling 30 .

Ground statistics of superbolts

Statistics of all superbolts measured with the ground network are plotted in Fig.  5a –e, along with statistics obtained from all 3349 lightning strokes measured from ECLAIR ground stations in the same period (09/2012-06/2013) (in green) in order to highlight the unique characteristics of superbolts (in red and blue). Superbolt median peak current estimate 31 is 363 kA, ~10 times higher than normal lightning (panel 5a). Fifteen percent of superbolts are positive cloud-to-ground (+CG) flashes, compared with 28% of +CG lightning triggered during the whole campaign. While a typical rise time (Fig.  5b and Supplementary Fig.  8c ) of normal lightning is 1–2 µs (up to 5 µs), superbolts last longer, 5–6 µs (up to 15 µs). The decay time of the ground wave (from maximum to zero) is between 50 and 90 µs for normal negative cloud-to-ground (-CG) lightning, giving a well-known asymmetric shape to the ground wave 5 for normal strokes. On the contrary, superbolts have a fast decay time of 10–20 µs (panel 5c), comparable to the rise time (Fig.  5b and Supplementary Fig.  8c ), leading to a more symmetric ground wave (as seen in Fig.  3f and Supplementary Fig.  7e ). This remarkable symmetry of the discharge, existing, for instance, for narrow bipolar pulses 5 , could help reveal physical differences between superbolts and other lightning. The median of the ground wave electric field (reported at ground distance of 100 km) is +240 V/m to be compared with + /−20 V/m for normal lightning (panel 5d). Median squared electric field, computed over 1.5 ms is 2.6 (V/m) 2 on the ground, about 100 times higher than for normal strokes (panel 5e). We find on average 38% of the total power (2 kHz–5 MHz) is in the VLF range (2–12 kHz) for normal lightning while this percentage reaches 68% for superbolts (cf. distribution in Supplementary Fig.  9a ). This percentage increases as the lightning power increases (Supplementary Fig.  9b ). This suggests that is the longer duration of powerful lightning that populates the lowest frequencies of the VLF range.

figure 5

Statistics of superbolt ground measurements from (blue) ECLAIR and (red) from both ECLAIR and MTRG stations compared with (green) the normalized statistics of regular lightning flashes measured by ECLAIR ground stations (from 3349 events and normalized to the maximum of superbolt statistics): a peak current estimate, b discharge rise time (time from 50 to 90% of peak), c discharge decay time, from maximum of the first peak to zero, d maximum electric field of the ground wave scaled to 100 km (using fits from Fig.  4 ), and e ground squared electric field, averaged over 1.5 ms. Notable findings are the symmetry of the superbolt’s discharge on the ground ( c , b ), peak current and electric field ~10 times larger than normal lightning ( a , d ), ground mean EM field squared about 100 times larger than for normal lightning ( e ).

Space statistics of superbolts

In space, another remarkable characteristic in these statistics is that superbolts are rare during day time, with 5/66 events occurring from ~9am to ~5 pm local time (Fig.  6a , pink histogram). Yet there is no sensitivity to day/night measured on the ground (6a, black/blue lines). This local time dependence is similar to the one found for non-superbolt lightning-generated waves (cf. second panel of Fig.  4 in ref. 21 ) and supports previous findings that the day time ionosphere makes the propagation of any lightning-generated waves into the magnetosphere more difficult. Superbolts detected in space from local burst-mode measurements are measured at a median satellite L-shell of 1.6 (~4000 km altitude at the equator). The mean [median] distance between WWLLN superbolt location and the closest magnetic footprint of the Van Allen Probes is 5924 km [5023 km]. They have a long-time delay (0.1–0.8 s) that corresponds to propagation time in the Earth-ionosphere waveguide and along field lines in the magnetosphere to the satellite, with some possible reflection between the conjugate points. The time delay, δ t, follows therefore a linear scaling with respect to L-shell, δ t = 0.277L – 0.225 in second, that is established in (panel 6b). Further ray-tracing studies should be able to answer whether this delay is due to ducted wave propagation along field lines in density depletions/enhancements (ducts) or to unducted wave propagation 32 , which is a general open problem of wave propagation 25 , 33 . Of the 10,724 superbolt events identified by WWLLN in 2012–2018, 431 WWLLN-detected superbolts were also captured by EMFISIS lower-resolution survey-mode data between 2012 and 2018. However, Van Allen Probes survey-mode measurements collect 0.5-s long records every 6 s. As superbolts signals in space typically exceed 1-s duration, the survey measurements usually do not contain the entire signal, thus truncating the total measured power. We show in Fig.  6(c, d) that survey-mode superbolt average power (black lines) is statistically larger than normal lightning, but not as powerful as burst-mode determined average power (pink histogram). This artificial bias is revealed by the burst-mode squared electric/magnetic field (pink, Fig.  6 c/ 6d ), which is found to be 10–1000 times more powerful than normal lightning (with global statistics 21 scaled in green for comparison). The three strongest events have a ~250 pT (6 mV/m) wave magnetic (electric) rms amplitude in Fig.  6c , d. The mean magnetic (electric) rms amplitude of the 66 superbolts is 83 pT (873 µV/m) in Fig.  6c , d. In comparison, the mean magnetic (electric) rms amplitudes of lightning-generated waves computed from survey measurements of all types of lightning strokes (possibly including superbolts) is ~83 (~43) times lower, with 1 ± 1.6 pT (19 ± 59 μV/m) 21 .

figure 6

Superbolts’ local time (in hour) distribution ( a ) and b time delay from ground time to detection time in space versus L-shell ( t  =  αL  +  β ). Statistics of Van Allen Probes c magnetic and d electric field squared, averaged over 1 s, from (pink) burst and (black) survey-mode measurements compared with (green) regular VLF lightning-generated wave distributions 21 . The mean [median] of the magnetic (electric) field squared is 3598 pT 2 (0.40 mV 2 /m 2 ) [80 pT 2 (0.015 mV 2 /m 2 )]. Notable findings are the absence of the superbolt’s electromagnetic signal in space during day times ( a ), a long-time delay of the space signal proportional to L-shell ( b ), ground and space mean EM field squared about 100 times larger than for normal lightning ( c , d ).

The maximum of the burst-mode squared electric/magnetic field within the superbolt time window is provided in Supplementary Fig.  10 . The comparison of Supplementary Fig.  10 with Fig.  6(c, d) shows the peak power exceeds by a factor ~10 (13) the mean magnetic (electric) power. Mean peak superbolt magnetic (electric) amplitude is 0.2 nT (1.9 mV 2 /m 2 ) (Supplementary Fig.  10 ). Peak values are useful for nonlinear computations briefly mentioned below. Intercomparison of superbolt’s electromagnetic power with other natural waves such that whistler-mode hiss waves 20 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 , whistler-mode chorus waves 20 , 43 , and ElectroMagnetic Ion Cyclotron (EMIC) waves 44 is left for future work.

Given spatial and temporal coverage of the Van Allen Probes data set, as well as the burst trigger algorithms, these events likely represent (to order-of-magnitude) the maximum power attainable for lightning-driven VLF waves near the Van Allen Probes. Such values may be useful for defining the dynamic range of future wave instruments or as an upper bound on lightning VLF wave power in simulations or numeric calculations. Extremely powerful lightning events including superbolts (>100 pT, representing 0.02% of lightning-generated waves) have been identified as strongly contributing to the global rms magnetic amplitude of lightning-generated waves for L  < 2 (e.g., 44% at L  = 1.1) 21 . These results suggest thus that the tail of the power density distribution of any type of waves (such as whistler-mode or EMIC waves) needs to be derived from, or at least confirmed by, from burst-mode measurements in order not to under-estimate the true wave power that is required for accurate radiation belt modeling (while today most statistical models are built from survey-mode data 21 , 34 , 35 , 37 , 39 , 41 , 42 ). Finally, superbolt’s extreme power is a good candidate of highly powerful waves for which the quasilinear approximation (commonly used to compute wave-particle interactions in the radiation belts 45 , 46 , 47 , 48 , 49 , 50 ) should break 51 , 52 , and to study further various nonlinear wave-particle interaction models 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 , 56 , 57 , 58 .

This study shows simultaneous measurements of a superbolt on the ground and the intense VLF signals in space driven by lightning. Ground and space observations demonstrate how different and extreme superbolts can be compared with normal lightning, for reasons not yet established. This study is a significant characterization of the previously unknown superbolts’ electromagnetic power, that should guide modeling and understanding of lightning electrodynamics, atmospheric discharges, and wave transmission from Earth to space, with applications in remote sensing, and wave modeling in space for radiation belt physics. Simultaneous optical and electromagnetic observations 59 , 60 should be critical to help reveal more mysteries of superbolts.

Ground-based measurements of superbolts

The north Atlantic in western of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea in southern-western of Europe have some of the highest wintertime occurrence rates of superbolts 7 . This is a region covered by Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA) ground stations 14 , 15 in France. The ground stations measure electric fields from a few hundred Hertz to 5 MHz 14 (VLF to High Frequency; HF) with vertical dipole whip antennas, at a sampling rate of 12.5 MHz.

The WWLLN network identifies 10,724 superbolts world-wide (gray dots, Supplementary Fig.  1 ) with a radiated energy greater than 1 MJ from synchronized measurements by >7 ground receivers 7 (with a WWLLN residual time of group arrival for all stations of less than 30 μs) for the years 2012–2018, out of 1.5 × 10 9 total strokes detected (see Supplementary Method  2 for the influence of the WWLLN minimum station number detecting a stroke and the residual time on the total number of superbolts). Thus, the occurrence frequency of superbolts in this WWLLN data set is seven events per million CG lightning events, yielding an average of 3.5 superbolt events per day world-wide (with a four times higher probability of occurrence in northern winter), and implying a very low probability to observe them simultaneously from space and on the ground. Among these 10,724 superbolts, 4034 were identified in Europe (Fig.  1 ), of which 384 occurred between 09/2012 and 06/2013, corresponding to a ground measurement campaign (ECLAIR) conducted by CEA. Of these, 368 high-resolution superbolt ground waveforms were recorded during ECLAIR 26 , with 86 of them also detected by the stations of the French lightning location network, Météorage (MTRG) 16 , within 1500 km of the ECLAIR network center (Fig.  1 ). These ground measurements (including WWLLN) provide superbolt occurrence time (with time accuracy <1 ms), geographic location, and WWLLN energy. They also provide ECLAIR high-resolution waveforms with rise and decay times, and ECLAIR and MTRG peak current estimates 31 (see Supplementary Method  1 for more information).

Space measurements of superbolts

In space, we use the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) instrument suite 17 and the Electric Fields and Waves (EFW) instrument 18 on board the two probes (Probe A and Probe B) of the NASA Van Allen Probes spacecraft 19 to measure electric and magnetic wave fields near the magnetic equatorial plane (+/−20° magnetic latitude). The instruments provide similar burst data, but capture records at different times. These ground and space-based measurements are used to study the symmetry of the first ground-wave peak, determine the time it takes for the signal to propagate to the satellite, quantify the loss of signal strength with distance, compute the frequency-dependent transmission of the wave power, and generate statistics (see Supplementary Method  1 for more information).

Superbolt detection and selection

Of the 10,724 WWLLN superbolts, 1143 occurred during a time when Van Allen Probes EFW or EMFISIS were capturing burst data that records electromagnetic waves at high temporal resolution, called the waveform, although most of these waveforms did not measure a superbolt due to the satellite’s location. Only 212 of these burst captures occurred when the Van Allen Probes were at L-shell, L, less than three where most of lightning-generated waves are observed 21 . For facilitating further selection, composite figures (such as Figs.  2 , 3 and Supplementary Figs.  6 and 7 discussed in the article) were generated for each of the 212 superbolts and used to screen them. Among them, 81 were retained because the on board burst system was triggered by identified whistler-mode waves and no unidentified (or other) radio wave power corrupted (partially or entirely) the burst signal. Additional selection criteria were then applied for retaining only clearly identified superbolts: (1) the lightning VLF signal was fully captured by the burst data (uninterrupted); (2) no other lightning flashes mask the superbolt signal (i.e., no lightning of higher or comparable estimated signal power 22 , 23 at the satellite occurred within the burst window); (3) and the distance (direct line), d , from the superbolt location to the magnetic footpoint of the field line on which the satellite sits is <8000 km. Note that although we are requiring that the satellite L is less than three, there is no restriction on the superbolt location. For superbolts with d  > 8000 km, we identified and retained some additional weak signals by hand that satisfied criteria (1) to (2). This process ensures the least possible contamination of the superbolt wave signal by other lightning. At the end of the selection process, only 66 burst captures of superbolt remained (38 from EFW and 28 from EMFISIS, with 1 recorded by both) out of the 1143 candidate events during which burst data was also collected. Among the 66 selected burst-mode signals, 33 were located by WWLLN to be over Europe (cf. Fig.  1 ), and only two of these were simultaneously recorded by ECLAIR, with one too far (9435 km away) from the closest Van Allen Probes magnetic footprint to be clearly identified. For these two events there is high-resolution data available from both the ground and space instrumentation that permits a detailed study linking the superbolt properties on the ground and in space, discussed below. Datasets are summarized in Supplementary Table  1 .

High-resolution power spectral density (PSD) from a selection of six superbolts is shown in Fig.  2 , computed from either the burst-mode electric field (a1–d1) or the ground-based (e1–f1) electric field waveforms. These waveforms (displayed in Supplementary Figs.  2 , 3 , 4 ) were decomposed by Fourier transform to produce electric field PSDs. The respective Van Allen Probes magnetic field PSDs are shown in Supplementary Fig.  5 . Characteristics of all superbolts discussed specifically in the article are gathered in Supplementary Table  2 and 3 . The black line in Fig.  2 (a2–f2) (see also the respective magnetic field intensity in Supplementary Fig.  5 ) represents the evolution of the square of the electric (magnetic) field wave, E 2 in V 2 /m 2 ( B 2 in pT 2 ), a.k.a. the wave electric (magnetic) intensity or squared amplitude or, more commonly called, the wave power, that is the frequency integral of the electric (magnetic) field PSD over the VLF range in space (~2–10 kHz) and (~2 kHz–5 MHz) on the ground.

Data availability

ECLAIR ground waveforms 26 are available at . Météorage data may be ordered from https://www.mété Van Allen Probes field data are available from the EFW and EMFISIS team websites, which one can link to here: . The WWLLN data are available from any WWLLN host or may be ordered from links ( ). The satellite Situation Center Locator operated online by NASA provides Van Allen Probes trajectories ( ).

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The authors thank the World Wide Lightning Location Network, a collaboration among over 50 universities and institutions, for providing the lightning location and energy data used in this paper. The work of J.-F.R., T.F., G.S.C., and E.H.L. was performed under the auspices of an agreement between CEA/DAM (Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, Direction des Applications Militaires) and NNSA/DP (National Nuclear Security Administration, Defense Program) on cooperation on fundamental science. The authors acknowledge the International Space Sciences Institute (ISSI). The work of GSC was supported in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Thanks also to DTRA for supporting a collaborative visit by JFR at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2018. The work of DM was supported by the National Science Foundation under award 1841011. The authors thank the entire Van Allen Probes team, and especially the EFW and EMFISIS teams for their support.

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J.-F.R. led the study, performed the data analysis, and wrote the manuscript. T.F. set up the CEA ground measurements (ECLAIR), processed the WWLLN, ECLAIR ground, and EFW and EMFISIS burst data, and performed the data analysis. D.M.M. treated the EFW and EMFISIS burst and survey data. E.H.L. contributed to WWLLN data quality check. D.M.M., E.H.L., and G.S.C. contributed to the data analysis. G.B.H. and C.A.K. contributed to the quality check of EMFISIS data and burst PSD computation. J.R.W. contributed to the quality check of EFW data. S.P. provided Météorage data. T.F., D.M.M., E.H.L., G.S.C., G.B.H., C.A.K., and J.R.W. contributed to writing of the manuscript through reviews and edits.

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can lightning travel in space

Fact check: Lightning shooting into space from Earth is real, but image is a simulation

can lightning travel in space

The claim: Lightning shot up into space near Nauru Island

The crackling streaks of electricity let out during thunderstorms typically appear to travel downward, striking the ground. But can lightning travel in the reverse, upward into space? One graphic circulating on social media claims it can and has a picture to purportedly prove it.

"In some cases lightning can go upward into space," reads a graphic shared in the Feb. 19 Instagram post , which gained recent attention. 

Above the text, an image depicts the purported phenomenon: A jet of bright blue light shoots above Earth into space, apparently as seen from the planet's orbit. The post claims this was observed near the "island of Naru (sic) in the Pacific Ocean."

The Instagram post amassed nearly 4,000 interactions in about nine months, according to CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool. 

Fact check: Times Square billboard altered to falsely claim Trump won 2020 election

Lightning can actually travel upward into our planet's atmosphere, however, the image in the Instagram post is an artistic simulation of the phenomenon, not an actual image taken from space. 

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram poster for comment.    

Lightning observed in 2019

As the post claims, blue jets were spotted shooting out of a thunderstorm near Nauru, a small island in the central Pacific Ocean, by researchers abroad the International Space Station in February 2019,  Live Science reported . 

In an article published in the journal Nature in January, the scientists described the event as five intense flashes of blue light, each lasting between 10 to 20 milliseconds. The event ended with a blue jet reaching altitudes up to about 32 miles above sea level in less than a second, slightly above Earth's second atmospheric level, called the stratosphere.  

On Jan. 20, the European Space Agency released an artist's impression of the phenomenon  in a 20-second video . The image in the Instagram post can be seen briefly around the five-second mark. 

Blue jets have been observed from the ground and aircraft for years, but exactly how far they can travel upward has not previously been recorded, reported Science News . 

And it's not entirely clear what causes the upward lightning. The working theory is that, similar to normal lightning caused by an electrical imbalance between nearby clouds or a cloud and the ground, the blue jet lightning is provoked when a positively charged section of cloud interacts with a negatively charged layer sitting above it, reported Smithsonian Magazine. 

This sort of upper atmospheric lightning is part of a group of events classified as transient luminous events that occur within the upper regions of Earth's atmosphere and were first spotted by accident in 1989 . 

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim lightning shot up into space near Nauru Island. While the phenomenon is real and was spotted above the area near the island, the image included in the post is a screenshot of a video simulation, not an actual image taken from space.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Live Science, Jan. 22, Upward-shooting 'blue jet' lightning spotted from International Space Station
  • Nature, Jan. 20, Observation of the onset of a blue jet into the stratosphere
  • The European Space Agency, Jan. 20, Elves seen from space  
  • Science News, Jan. 21, Space station detectors found the source of weird 'blue jet' lightning
  • Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 26, Mysterious Blue Jet Lightning Seen From Space
  • BBC, Jan. 26, Nasa: Blue jet space lightning spotted by scientists from the ISS

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here .

Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

New Research

Mysterious Blue Jet Lightning Seen From Space

Researchers captured an instance of this poorly understood type of lightning using instruments aboard the International Space Station

Alex Fox


blue jet lightning

When storm clouds send lightning crackling in jagged streaks across the sky or produce a thundering bolt that strikes the ground, another otherworldly phenomenon sometimes erupts from the top of the clouds in a column of blue light firing toward space. These colorful flashes are called blue jets and they can stretch 30 miles into the stratosphere.

Blue jets can only be seen from the ground under rare circumstances because they’re brief and are typically obscured by clouds. But in 2019, instruments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were able record five blue flashes and a blue jet that shot into space from a storm cloud near the island of Nauru in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

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Now, those observations form the basis of a new paper published in the journal Nature that may help explain what gives rise to blue jets, reports Nicoletta Lanese for Live Science . Per the paper, each of the flashes lasted between 10 and 20 milliseconds and the blue jet reached an altitude of roughly 32 miles above sea level.

According to Live Science , the current, albeit incomplete, understanding of blue jets suggests that they occur when the positively charged upper section of a cloud interacts with a negatively charged layer sitting just above the cloud, briefly equalizing the opposing charges in a bright blue discharge of static electricity. Normal lightning, Maria Temming of Science News explains, occurs when opposing charges in nearby clouds or between a cloud and the ground equalize and discharge their electricity.

can lightning travel in space

The blue jet over Nauru was captured by optical cameras, photometers, and an X-ray and gamma-ray detector mounted on the outside of the ISS. The researchers report that the blue flashes were accompanied by flashes of ultraviolet light called ELVES.

"This paper is an impressive highlight of the many new phenomena ASIM is observing above thunderstorms," says Astrid Orr, physical sciences coordinator for human and robotic spaceflight with the European Space Agency (ESA), in a statement .

Victor Pasko, an astrophysicist at Penn State who was not involved in the work, tells Science News that improving our understanding of blue jets, as well as other unfamiliar but no less real phenomena such as red sprites , is important because they can disrupt the radio waves we use for communication technology. Per Live Science , these upper atmospheric phenomena may also impact the concentrations of greenhouse gases and Earth’s ozone layer.

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Alex Fox

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Alex Fox is a freelance science journalist based in California. He has written for the  New York Times, National Geographic,  Science ,  Nature and other outlets . You can find him at .


Science News by AGU

Planetary Lightning: Same Physics, Distant Worlds

Kimberly M. S. Cartier, News Writing and Production Intern for

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Illustration of lightning at Jupiter’s north pole

Lightning Science Strikes

Cover of May 2020 issue of Eos

Lightning Research Flashes Forward

Studying earth’s double electrical heartbeat, catching elves in argentina, returning lightning data to the cloud, understanding high-energy physics in earth’s atmosphere, mapping lightning strikes from space, investigating the spark.

A translation of  this article  was made possible by a partnership with  Planeteando . Una traducción de  este artículo  fue posible gracias a una asociación con  Planeteando .

What do you think of when you imagine lightning?

If you pictured a zigzagging bolt of electricity striking the ground from a rolling thundercloud, you’re right. If you pictured elves, sprites, spiders, jets, or volcanoes, you’re also correct.

You’re also right if you pictured any of those phenomena on another planet.

In 1979, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft flew past Jupiter and saw flashes of light illuminating areas of the planet’s nighttime sky larger than the United States. Accompanying those flashes were extremely low frequency radio signals, called whistlers. On Jupiter, as on Earth, those two signs taken together unequivocally point to lightning.

Since that first Voyager 1 detection of planetary lightning , scientists have found proof of lightning and other lightning-related transient luminous events elsewhere in the solar system. In our solar system and beyond, planetary lightning goes beyond the simple scheme of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” There are plenty of “maybes” and “why nots,” too.

A Recipe for Lightning

Generating lighting requires a few key ingredients, explained Karen Aplin , an associate professor of space science and technology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “Because it’s like a spark, you need to have the charges separated. You need to have the positive and negatives far enough apart so that the voltage between them is big enough” to cause an electrical breakdown of the air. Lightning is the manifestation of that electrical breakdown.

Earth’s thunderstorms have those key ingredients, and above thunderstorm clouds different methods of discharging electricity can create sprites, elves, and blue jets .

Lava, ash, and lightning erupting out of a volcano

But thunderstorms aren’t the only environment that creates the conditions needed for lightning. “Volcanic lightning is really common in explosive eruptions. It’s not a rare, unusual phenomenon,” explained Alexa Van Eaton , a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. “It happens during most intermediate or larger explosions, and it gets started in a simple way.”

“As the magma rises to the surface,” she said, “it can become really frothy and bubbly and break itself apart. The water bubbles expand and blow themselves up. That breakage process is highly electrifying. Once those tiny rock particles—volcanic ash—are shooting up into the atmosphere at high speed, they’re colliding, exchanging electrons, and creating a charge right at the base of the volcanic plume. Then once the plume rises high enough to freeze, the ice particles help to generate even more lightning” by separating more charge.

“You can expect that if it’s an ash-producing eruption, it is capable of making lightning.”

“You can expect that if it’s an ash-producing eruption, it is capable of making lightning,” said Sonja Behnke , a scientist who researches volcanic lightning at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “It’s very common, and even if it doesn’t produce lightning, the ash plume might still have charge to it.”

The ingredients for lightning—polarized gas molecules, atmospheric movement, and the possibility of electrical breakdown—exist to some degree on any world in the solar system with an atmosphere. Scientists have found that this so-called planetary lightning creates signals similar to those Earth lightning makes.

Lightning superheats the surrounding atmosphere into a plasma and creates a visible flash of light. It emits electromagnetic pulses at high, low, and broadband radio frequencies. Lightning can also create audible pressure pulses—thunder—and magnetic pulses, but these two signals are more difficult to detect even when in a close orbit around a planet.

Volcanic lightning, which might also exist on other worlds, puts out a unique signal: thousands of tiny sparks. “Unfortunately, you have to be pretty near to the volcano to detect them,” Behnke said. “But they are a signature that could be exploited…because thunderstorms don’t make a whole swarm of these itty bitty discharges. It’s a very distinct signature.”

Blue hour and night timelapse of Taal Volcano eruption. — shuajo (@joshibob_) January 12, 2020

The Haves: Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus

On Jupiter scientists observed lightning storms almost anywhere and anytime they looked, said Yoav Yair , dean of the School of Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel and a scientist whose research focuses on atmospheric electricity.

Jovian lightning has been observed for 4 decades in visible, low-frequency radio, and high-frequency radio wavelengths by visiting spacecraft and atmospheric probes . After studying thousands of lightning events, scientists now know that most of Jupiter’s lightning occurs above midlatitudes and near its poles (where there are large convective storms ) and can occur at a rate similar to Earth lightning . Data also reveal that a flash of Jovian lightning has 10 times the total electromagnetic energy of a terrestrial lightning flash.

Saturn, too, has lightning. During its Saturn flyby in 1980, Voyager 1 detected lightning-generated radio pulses, initially suspected to come from the rings but later found to be from the atmosphere. But it wasn’t until the a few years into the Cassini mission that optical flashes of lightning became visible. The lightning storms, or Saturn electrostatic discharges, are intermittent but can last for months at a time.

Most of the lightning observed by Cassini occurred right before or after Saturn’s equinox in 2009, suggesting that it’s triggered by a seasonal change in the weather. Saturn has also produced some of the most spectacular planetary lightning seen to date, including the “ Dragon Storm ” of 2005 and, in 2013, the largest and most energetic storm ever recorded in the solar system.

Is there lightning on Uranus? “The answer is quite certainly yes.”

Is there lightning on Uranus ? “The answer is quite certainly yes,” affirmed Philippe Zarka . Zarka is an astrophysicist and a senior scientist at Observatoire de Paris, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université Paris Sciences et Lettres.

Lightning-related signals “were detected with Voyager 2 during the Uranus flyby,” he said. “We found radio spikes very, very similar to the ones at Saturn. Also we observed a different setup on the dayside and nightside of the planet. So it’s quite clear that it’s lightning .”

Voyager 2, the only mission to visit Uranus, didn’t see visible flashes of lightning, and Aplin said that it’s not likely we ever will. “People think that the lightning was quite deep in the atmosphere,” she said. “If there were flashes, we wouldn’t have seen them anyway because they’re too deep be detected. There are many layers of cloud above the layers of cloud that would have had lightning in them.”

Planetary scientists have used radio telescopes on Earth to study lightning on Jupiter and Saturn . Observations of Uranus, too, might be possible. “If you do some back of the envelope calculations,” Aplin said, “it looks like the signal might just about be detectable from Uranus lightning, based on the sort of strength that we estimate it is.”

The Have-Nots: Mercury, Moon, Titan, and Pluto

Any place in the solar system that does not have a convective atmosphere or similar process cannot have atmospheric lightning. That rules out Mercury, the Moon, and other airless bodies like asteroids for atmospheric or volcanic lightning. Despite this, solar wind can impart charge onto a dusty surface, including the Moon’s, which can present an electric discharge hazard to equipment and astronauts alike.

Unlike the Moon, Saturn’s moon Titan does have a thick atmosphere. “Methane clouds on Titan are not that good for producing electricity,” Yair said. The clouds are made of an organic substance (methane), he explained, which is poorly electrified. As a result, the clouds tend to be less capable of building up a charge strong enough to produce lightning.

Side-by-side images of a storm cloud on Saturn with and without a flash of lightning

No lightning was observed on Titan before the Huygens Probe landed in 2005, and the team had calculated a less than 1% chance that the moon’s hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere and surface could generate or discharge enough electricity to create lightning.

However, organic molecules, like those that make up wildfire ash on Earth, can still create lightning when lofted to high altitudes because of ice formation in upper levels of the clouds, Van Eaton explained. And Titan’s atmosphere does have trace amounts of water .

Huygens was equipped with lightning safety measures but didn’t experience any lightning. Furthermore, Cassini saw no evidence of lightning on Titan during its 10-year mission. “If lightning occurs at all, and it may not, then it likely occurs in rainstorms,” said Ralph Lorenz , a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Lorenz and the rest of the team behind NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission to Titan are, nonetheless, exercising caution. “Rainstorms do not occur at the latitude and season of Dragonfly’s nominal mission. We are, however, taking, like aircraft on Earth, precautions against electrostatic discharge, just in case that occurs when sand blows around.”

Last on the list of worlds that likely doesn’t have lightning is Pluto. Although Pluto has layers of atmospheric haze , Yair explained, that haze is composed of nonconductive hydrocarbons like those surrounding Titan and much too thin to produce or conduct electricity.

The Maybes: Venus and Neptune

Although Neptune is similar to Uranus in many ways, lightning might not be one of them. “In 1989 during the [Voyager 2] flyby of Neptune,” Zarka said, “we recorded data similar to the data recorded at Saturn and Uranus. We analyzed the data in a similar way.…The analysis just showed 5 events similar to lightning. To give a comparison, at Saturn we saw something like 10,000 or so. At Uranus, it was 140.”

“We cannot seriously claim that we detected lightning on Neptune.”

“With five [events], we cannot say it was detected because it may be spurious,” he said. “It may be some electrostatic discharge on the spacecraft. So we cannot seriously claim that we detected lightning on Neptune.” There’s no reason to suspect that Neptune wouldn’t have lightning, Zarka said. It simply might be more sporadic than on Uranus because of a slightly different atmospheric composition and vertical convection.

Neptune, like Uranus, likely makes lightning below thick upper clouds that would block any visible flashes, Aplin said. Radio measurements from Earth are out, too. “The energy we estimate for the lightning is lower for Neptune, and because it’s further away that means the signal would be so weak, you couldn’t detect it,” she said. Resolving this puzzle, however, will likely require an orbital mission to the ice giant.

If Venus has lightning, “it’s a bit weird, and we don’t quite understand it. It’s not behaving in ways that we expect.”

On Venus, there has been some evidence of lightning, but the matter is still very much up for debate. “Venus is quite controversial,” Aplin said. “I think probably the best evidence at the moment [suggests] there’s probably not lightning at Venus. But if there is, it’s a bit weird, and we don’t quite understand it. It’s not behaving in ways that we expect.”

In the 1970s, the Soviet Venera 11–14 missions detected whistlers and other radio emissions, as did the Pioneer Venus Orbiter in 1980, the Galileo spacecraft in 1991, and the Venus Express mission in 2007. On the other hand, NASA’s Cassini mission flew by Venus in 1998 and 1999, and Japan’s Venus Climate Orbiter “ Akatsuki ” has been orbiting Venus since 2015. Both were equipped with an instrument designed for detecting lightning, and neither craft found any.

Maybe Venusian lightning is rare and localized, Zarka said, or maybe Venus’s atmosphere just can’t create lightning at all. “At Venus, there is a very, very strong horizontal superrotation of the atmosphere,” he said. “That could prevent vertical convection.”

Too, Venus’s clouds aren’t rolling thunderstorms like on Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Aplin said. “On Venus, it’s not like that at all. There’s no known mechanism by which the lightning could be generated. That’s not saying it’s not there, but just saying it’s different to the simplest interpretation.”

What data would resolve this debate? “Ideally, you’d like a radio detection and an optical detection at the same time,” Aplin said, “because people can argue about one or the other, but if you have them both at the same time, then it’s not really controversial.”

Lorenz agreed and added that “if radio emissions characteristic of lightning could be repeatedly associated with [a] specific formation mechanism—e.g., the geographical location of a known volcano—or with specific atmospheric conditions identified by other means like cloud updrafts or fronts, then that would be a compelling indication of a lightning-like phenomenon.”

The Why Nots: Mars, Io, and Exoplanets

And then there are the worlds where we have not detected convincing evidence of lightning but have no reason to think lighting couldn’t exist there.

Mars’s atmosphere is generally considered too thin and dry to create lightning storms. But more frequent phenomena like dust devils and dust storms might create something like large-scale static electricity. Just like volcanic lightning, dust particles colliding with one another will build up some charge and then the storm or vortex could separate the charge like a convective cell, Zarka explained. This type of static charging could also create lightning at Jupiter’s moon Io, which regularly spews volcanic debris into space, according to Yair.

What it come down to is that if there’s a way to create lightning, there’s probably somewhere in the solar system that does it. And that holds true for worlds beyond the solar system, too.

“It’s just standard atmospheric physics,” Zarka said. “Lightning is quite common. There’s really no reason not to have lightning at exoplanets.”

It’s not likely that astronomers will be able to detect exolightning any time soon, Zarka said. “The answer is no, absolutely no,” he said. Typical radio signals from lightning are much weaker than background noise from a planetary magnetosphere. To be seen from so far away, the lightning would have to be billions or trillions of times stronger than terrestrial lightning. That’s just not realistic, Zarka explained.

What Use Is Lightning?

Lightning—whether atmospheric, volcanic, or otherwise—can be a powerful tool for understanding the complexities of distant worlds, especially on planets where we have not explored in situ or cannot do so.

The rate, duration, and frequencies of radio pulses as well as the optical flash duration can distinguish between lightning sources. The spatial distribution can tell scientists whether lightning is associated with thunderclouds, hurricanes, or a specific geographic feature like a volcano. How lightning strikes vary over time can also reveal daily or seasonal weather patterns.

“Lightning is not just beautiful, but it’s also really valuable.”

Moreover, “people are so sure that lightning’s about convection that if they see lightning, they just know it’s convection,” Aplin said. And lightning can spark unique chemical reactions that might not otherwise happen, some of which might be important for developing life.

But back home on Earth, lightning has been gaining ground as a way to detect eruptions of remote volcanoes and assess their hazards to aviation, shipping, agriculture, and people.

“Lightning is becoming very useful for scientists to track volcanic ash clouds,” Van Eaton said. “And we want to make better and better instruments and improve our scientific understanding so that lightning is not just beautiful, but it’s also really valuable for keeping people out of harm’s way.”

Author Information

Kimberly M. S. Cartier ( @AstroKimCartier ), Staff Writer

Cartier, K. M. S. (2020), Planetary lightning: Same physics, distant worlds, Eos, 101 , . Published on 24 April 2020.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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Lightning is an electric charge or current. It can come from the clouds to the ground, from cloud to cloud, or from the ground to a cloud.

Earth Science, Meteorology, Geography, Physics

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Lightning is an electric charge or current . It can come from the clouds to the ground, from cloud to cloud, or from the ground to a cloud. Lightning is a product of a planet ’s atmosphere . Raindrops very high up in the sky turn to ice . When many small pieces of these frozen raindrops collide with each other in a thundercloud , they create an electrical charge. After some time, the entire cloud fills with an electrical charge. The negative charges ( electrons ) concentrate at the bottom of the cloud. The positive and neutral charges ( protons ) and neutral charges ( neutrons ) gather at the top of the cloud. Negative charges and positive charges attract each other. Thunderclouds are full of electrical charges connecting with each other. These connections are visible as lightning. On the ground beneath the cloud’s negative charges, positive charges build up. The positive charge on the ground concentrates around anything that protrudes , or sticks up—like trees, telephone poles, blades of grass, even people. The positive charges from these objects reach up higher into the sky. The negative charges in the thundercloud reach lower. Eventually, they touch. When they touch, lightning is created between the two charges. This connection also creates thunder. Thunder is simply the noise lightning makes. The loud boom is caused by the heat of the lightning. When the air gets very, very hot, the heat makes the air explode. Since light travels much, much, faster than sound, you’ll see lightning before you hear thunder.

To figure out how far away a storm is, start counting seconds as soon as you see lightning. Stop when you hear thunder. The number you get divided by five is approximately the number of miles away the storm is. For example, if you see lightning and get to 10 before you hear thunder, the storm is about two miles (3.2 kilometers) away. Lightning Safety All thunderstorms and lightning storms are dangerous . Lightning is very, very hot—hotter than the surface of the sun. It can reach 28,000 degrees Celsius (50,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Lightning is more likely to strike objects that stick up off of the ground, including people. In the U.S., lightning kills an average of 58 people each year. That’s more deaths than are caused by tornadoes and hurricanes . If you hear thunder or see lightning, you may be in danger. If you hear thunder, the storm is nearby. Go inside a safe place. Stay away from open areas, like fields, and tall objects, like trees or telephone poles. Stay away from anything metal, too, like chain-link fences, bikes, and metal shelters. Since water is a great conductor of electricity , you should get out of a pool if you’re swimming and stay away from puddles and any other water. If you’re in an area where there is no shelter, crouch low to the ground, but don’t lay down flat. If you’re in a group, stand at least five meters (15 feet) from anyone else.

Greased Lightning Greased lightning is a description for something that is very fast and very powerful. But even the slipperiest substances, like grease, cant be applied to real lightning, of course!

Imperial Lightning Lightning strikes the iconic American Empire State Building in New York City about 100 times every year.

Make Your Own Lightning The same process that creates lightning is possible to experience at home. Rub your feet on a carpet, then touch a metal doorknob. Do you feel a shock? That's static electricity. Static electricity occurs when an object has too many electrons, giving it a negative charge. The negative charge of your body is attracting the positive charge of the metal in the doorknob. This is a less-dangerous version of the negative charges in a thundercloud attracting the positive charge in the ground beneath.

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Lightning explained.

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Lightning is a large-scale natural spark discharge that occurs within the atmosphere or between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. On discharge, a highly electrically conductive plasma channel is created within the air, and when current flows within this channel, it rapidly heats the air up to about 25,000°C. The lightning channel is an example of terrestrial plasma in action.

Seeing lightning

Lightning is visible as a flash of blue-white light. The extremely high temperatures generated heat the air molecules to a state of incandescence (white hot) such that they emit a vivid white light. At the same time, nitrogen gas (the dominant gas in the atmosphere) is stimulated to luminesce, producing bright blue-white. The combination of light from luminescence and incandescence gives the bolt of lightning its characteristic colour.

Lightning’s partner

Temperatures in the narrow lightning channel reach about 25,000°C. The surrounding air is rapidly heated, causing it to expand violently at a rate faster than the speed of sound, similar to a sonic boom. At about 10 m out from the channel, it becomes an ordinary sound wave called thunder.

Thunder is effectively exploding air, and when heard close to the lightning channel, it consists of one large bang. At about 1 km away, it is heard as a rumble with several loud claps. Distant thunder has a characteristic low-pitched rumbling sound. However, beyond 16 km, thunder is seldom heard.

Conditions needed for lightning to occur

It is the formation and separation of positive and negative electric charges within the atmosphere that creates the highly intensive electric field needed to support this natural spark discharge that is lightning.

The formation of electric charges in the atmosphere is due mainly to the ionisation of air molecules by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are high-energy particles such as protons that originate from outside the solar system. On colliding with air molecules, they produce a shower of lighter particles, some of which are charged.

Within a thundercloud, the rapid upward and downward movement of water droplets and ice crystals can separate and concentrate these charges. The negative charges accumulate at the bottom part of t he cloud and the positive charges towards the top.

Lightning production

As the area of negative charge at the base of the thundercloud builds up, it induces a region of positive charge to develop on the ground below. As a result of this, a potential difference or voltage is created across t he clou d-to-ground gap. Once the voltage reaches a certain strength, the air between the base of t he cloud and the ground develops an electrical conductivity. At first a channel, known as a stepped leader, is formed. Although invisible to the naked eye, this allows electrons to move from the cloud to the ground.

It is called a stepped leader because it travels in 50 to 100 m sections, with a slight pause in between, to the ground. As it nears the ground, a positively charged streamer fires upwards from the ground to connect with it. Streamers are most often initiated from tall objects on the ground.

Once connected, electrons from t he cloud c an flow to the ground and positive charges can flow from the ground to th e cloud . It is this flow of charge that is the visible lightning stroke.

After the first discharge, it is possible for another leader to form down the channel. Once again, a visible lightning stoke is seen. This can happen 3–4 times in quick succession . All of this happens in a time interval of about 200 milliseconds.

Monitoring lightning

A worldwide lightning location network (WWLLN, pronounced ‘woollen’) was founded in New Zealand in 2003. Working with the collaboration of scientists from around the world, the network plots lightning discharge locations seconds after they occur.

Around the world, there are about 45 lightning flashes per second. Apart from generating the characteristic blue-white light, radio wave pulses known as sferics are also produced. The frequent crackles heard when tuned into an AM radio station during a thunderstorm are sferics from the lightning discharges.

These sferics are registered at the 60 WWLLN receiving stations around the world and provide a near real-time information dataset. This information is made available to scientists via a high-speed internet connection provided by REANNZ (Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand).

Red sprites

High above thunderstorm clouds at altitudes between 50–90 km, large-scale electrical discharges can occur. These are triggered by thundercloud-to-ground lightning activity. They appear as fleeting, luminous, red-orange flashes and take on a variety of shapes. Unlike ‘hot plasma’ lightning, they are cold plasma forms somewhat similar to the discharges that occur in a fluorescent tube.

It is because of their fleeting nature, lasting mostly for only milliseconds, and ghost-like appearance that the term ‘sprite’ has been used.

Nature of science

The tale of the 100-year hunt for red sprites is a story of how science works. It is a story illustrating that science, rather than knowing all there is to know, stands barely on the threshold of many more discoveries about our complex and fascinating universe. They were given little more credence than UFO sightings until 1989, when university researchers accidentally captured a red sprite on a low-light video camera.

St Elmo’s fire

In the region between a thundercloud and the ground, a very strong electric field can be set up. There is a huge potential difference (voltage) established between the negative base of t he clou d and the positive ground. When this potential difference reaches a certain value, sharp-pointed ground-based objects are seen to glow, often with a hissing sound.

Because this weather-related occurrence sometimes appeared on ships at sea during thunderstorms, it was given the name ‘St Elmo’s fire’. Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, and in the past, sailors regarded such an event as an omen of bad luck and stormy weather.

St Elmo’s fire is a bright blue or violet glow due to the formation of luminous plasma. It appears like fire in some circumstances coming from sharply pointed objects such as masts, spires, lightning rods and even on aircraft wings.

Related content

Explore the basics of static electricity and electrical charge and electrons, insulators and conductors .

Help your students understand more about lightening with the Viewing and monitoring lightning activity.

Useful links

NASA SciJinks website on lightning with easy-to-read information and good animations.

Lightning article from New World Encyclopedia website that includes information on the history of lightning research including a theory called runaway breakdown, a hypothesises that cosmic rays trigger the process.

Information on ‘ transient luminous events ’ produced by large thunderstorms in the upper atmosphere.

Up-to-date information on worldwide lightning strikes from WWLLN .

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One hundred years ago today, on May 29, 1919, measurements of a solar eclipse offered verification for Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Even before that, Einstein had developed the theory of special relativity, which revolutionized the way we understand light. To this day, it provides guidance on understanding how particles move through space — a key area of research to keep spacecraft and astronauts safe from radiation.

The theory of special relativity showed that particles of light, photons, travel through a vacuum at a constant pace of 670,616,629 miles per hour — a speed that’s immensely difficult to achieve and impossible to surpass in that environment. Yet all across space, from black holes to our near-Earth environment, particles are, in fact, being accelerated to incredible speeds, some even reaching 99.9% the speed of light.

One of NASA’s jobs is to better understand how these particles are accelerated. Studying these superfast, or relativistic, particles can ultimately help protect missions exploring the solar system, traveling to the Moon, and they can teach us more about our galactic neighborhood: A well-aimed near-light-speed particle can trip onboard electronics and too many at once could have negative radiation effects on space-faring astronauts as they travel to the Moon — or beyond.

Here are three ways that acceleration happens.

Most of the processes that accelerate particles to relativistic speeds work with electromagnetic fields — the same force that keeps magnets on your fridge. The two components, electric and magnetic fields, like two sides of the same coin, work together to whisk particles at relativistic speeds throughout the universe.

In essence, electromagnetic fields accelerate charged particles because the particles feel a force in an electromagnetic field that pushes them along, similar to how gravity pulls at objects with mass. In the right conditions, electromagnetic fields can accelerate particles at near-light-speed.

On Earth, electric fields are often specifically harnessed on smaller scales to speed up particles in laboratories. Particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab, use pulsed electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged particles up to 99.99999896% the speed of light. At these speeds, the particles can be smashed together to produce collisions with immense amounts of energy. This allows scientists to look for elementary particles and understand what the universe was like in the very first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. 

Download related video from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Magnetic fields are everywhere in space, encircling Earth and spanning the solar system. They even guide charged particles moving through space, which spiral around the fields.

When these magnetic fields run into each other, they can become tangled. When the tension between the crossed lines becomes too great, the lines explosively snap and realign in a process known as magnetic reconnection. The rapid change in a region’s magnetic field creates electric fields, which causes all the attendant charged particles to be flung away at high speeds. Scientists suspect magnetic reconnection is one way that particles — for example, the solar wind, which is the constant stream of charged particles from the Sun — is accelerated to relativistic speeds.

Those speedy particles also create a variety of side-effects near planets.  Magnetic reconnection occurs close to us at points where the Sun’s magnetic field pushes against Earth’s magnetosphere — its protective magnetic environment. When magnetic reconnection occurs on the side of Earth facing away from the Sun, the particles can be hurled into Earth’s upper atmosphere where they spark the auroras. Magnetic reconnection is also thought to be responsible around other planets like Jupiter and Saturn, though in slightly different ways.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft were designed and built to focus on understanding all aspects of magnetic reconnection. Using four identical spacecraft, the mission flies around Earth to catch magnetic reconnection in action. The results of the analyzed data can help scientists understand particle acceleration at relativistic speeds around Earth and across the universe.

Particles can be accelerated by interactions with electromagnetic waves, called wave-particle interactions. When electromagnetic waves collide, their fields can become compressed. Charged particles bouncing back and forth between the waves can gain energy similar to a ball bouncing between two merging walls.

These types of interactions are constantly occurring in near-Earth space and are responsible for accelerating particles to speeds that can damage electronics on spacecraft and satellites in space. NASA missions, like the Van Allen Probes , help scientists understand wave-particle interactions.

Wave-particle interactions are also thought to be responsible for accelerating some cosmic rays that originate outside our solar system. After a supernova explosion, a hot, dense shell of compressed gas called a blast wave is ejected away from the stellar core. Filled with magnetic fields and charged particles, wave-particle interactions in these bubbles can launch high-energy cosmic rays at 99.6% the speed of light. Wave-particle interactions may also be partially responsible for accelerating the solar wind and cosmic rays from the Sun.

Download this and related videos in HD formats from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

By Mara Johnson-Groh NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center , Greenbelt, Md.

It’s a wonderful world — and universe — out there.

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Science News Explores

Let’s learn about lightning.

These bolts are beautiful — and deadly

multiple lightning strikes seen striking at the horizon over water

Lightning (seen here in Trieste, Italy) can be beautiful, but it can also be deadly.

Jurkos/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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By Sarah Zielinski

June 8, 2021 at 6:30 am

Around 100 times a second, every hour of every day, lightning strikes somewhere on Earth. It might strike over the ocean, far from where anyone might see it. It might hit the beach, perhaps forming a beautiful deposit of fulgurite . It might strike a tree, setting off a wildfire . And on rare occasions, it might hit a person , injuring or even killing them.

In fact, some 24,000 people are killed each year by lightning. This is why you should seek cover any time there’s a thunderstorm in the area. Even if the storm doesn’t appear close, you might still get struck.

Lightning comes in many forms. There are the big bolts from cloud to the ground, of course, but also plenty that travel between clouds in the sky. There’s also blue jets , red sprites and ball lightning . (There’s also lightning in space: Jupiter has its own light shows of “sprites” and “elves.”)

While most lightning appears and disappears in a flash, some can last longer. An extreme bolt over Argentina on March 4, 2019 lasted 16.73 seconds , setting a record. And while lightning can form anywhere, scientists have mapped where the biggest bolts tend to strike — Europe is one hot spot.

And while lightning can do a lot of damage, it’s not all bad. Scientists have reported these bolts can forge atmosphere-cleaning chemicals called oxidants. Those chemicals help pollutants rain out of the sky. And that’s especially good since climate change is expected to bring us more of those big bolts.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Here’s how lightning may help clean the air Airplane observations show that storm clouds can generate huge quantities of air-cleansing chemicals known as oxidants. (5/18/2021) Readability: 6.8

Space station sensors saw how weird ‘blue jet’ lightning forms A mysterious type of lightning in the upper atmosphere has been traced to a brief, bright flash of light at the top of a storm cloud. (2/2/2021) Readability: 7.4

Where will lightning strike? When lightning strikes, the results can be deadly. But nature’s dazzling light show also can provide scientists with insights into when and where the next thunderbolt might strike. (9/16/2014) Readability: 7.0

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Space tourists and crew suffer high radiation risks – regulation is needed to protect them

can lightning travel in space

Postgraduate Researcher of Space Risk Engineering, University of Surrey

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Chris Rees does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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In a decade or two, journeys into space could become as normal as transatlantic flights. In particular, the number of humans travelling into space with the help of commercial companies, such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin , will increase significantly.

But such travel comes with huge radiation risks. Sudden changes in space weather, such as solar flares, for example, could have significant health implications for crew and passengers. Now our recent paper , from the University of Surrey, Foot Anstey LLP Space and Satellite Team, has found that current legislation and regulation don’t do enough to protect space tourists and crew.

Changes in space weather could expose space tourists to radiation doses in excess of the recommended maximum 1 millisievert (mSv) yearly uptake for a member of the public and 20mSv yearly for those working with radiation. Research at the University of Surrey shows that during an extreme space weather event, flight participants could receive doses in excess of 100mSv .

Current legislation and regulation focusing on potential radiation exposure for space tourists is limited and largely untested. There is a heavy focus on conventional non-radiation risk and wider safety, with guidance stemming from regulation of normal commercial flights. However, these are significantly different to space tourism enterprises.

Similarly, the law around space flights and their associated risk liability is complex . Space law incorporates a mix of international law (such as international agreements, treaties and conventions), domestic legislation and guidance.

Cancer risk

Exposure to low levels of background natural radiation is part of everyday life. Most people are not aware of this exposure and the potential risks to our health. For example, an 0.08mSv effective dose from a commercial flight from the UK to the US.

However, exposure to elevated levels of ionising radiation, such as those possible during space weather events, can potentially cause damage to DNA. The risk of space travel therefore ranges from a minor increase in health defects to serious health implications such as cancers.

Diagram illustrating the comparison of radiation doses.

There has been significant risk assessment of radiation exposure on Earth; for example in the nuclear industry . This is unlike the space tourism industry, which is still in its infancy.

Previous research has focused on the potential risk assessment for astronauts from radiation exposure and long duration missions outside low-Earth orbit. But this does not consider risks for those on short trips to space as tourists. Thus, there is still significant work to be done to assess the unique risk for space tourist flights and the supporting guidance and regulation.

Any existing regulation, such as the UK Air Navigation Order and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) space flight regulations , that is applicable to potential space flights focuses on crew, rather than paying passengers.

The space tourism industry is currently not fully aware of the radiation risks, we discovered. It is instead relying on incomplete “informed consent” for non-crew participants. The current regulation for the industry therefore places the risk burden firmly on the space tourist. We argue more legislation and regulation are needed.

Our recommendations

We made a series of recommendations in our report. But they are advisory. They are intended for the industry and regulators to consider as the space tourism sector continues to develop, particularly the FAA and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

We suggest these bodies collaborate with industry, including space tourism companies, spacecraft manufacturers and space research organisations, to understand the technical challenges and risks associated with new spaceflight activities. Such collaboration would help ensure that regulations are practical, effective and reflective of the latest technological advances.

We also advise considering international standards. As the commercial space industry becomes more global, it will be important for the CAA and FAA to collaborate with international regulatory bodies elsewhere, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Uncopuos) , to develop consistent regulations that apply across multiple jurisdictions.

Safety should be a critical consideration for any new regulations related to spaceflight. The CAA and FAA will need to ensure that new regulations adequately address risks associated with spaceflight. This is particularly exposure to radiation, but also the potential for accidents or system failures.

Finally, we encourage innovation. The commercial space industry is characterised by rapid innovation and technological advancement. Any new regulations must not stifle this innovation. The CAA and FAA will need to develop regulations that strike a balance between promoting safety, encouraging the development of new technologies and approaches, and enabling growth of the industry.

Ultimately, the CAA and the FAA will need to be flexible and adaptive. As the industry continues to evolve, they should review and update regulations to ensure they remain relevant and effective.

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Learn about our planet!

Can lightning travel through a vacuum?

Lightning as we know it in air cannot happen in vacuum because lightening depends crucially on the generation of positive ions and negative electrons by ionization of molecules of the air in high electric fields (and eventually high temperatures) and the ensuing impact ionization typical for a gas discharge.

Electrons can jump from one surface to another in vacuum, but they require a larger voltage to do so than if there were air in between the surfaces. If you define this to be lightning, rather than the resulting breakdown of air molecules that normally occurs, then yes lightning can occur in vacuum.

This is what our research found. because of this light does not require a medium for propagation. They can travel through a vacuum. Was this answer helpful?, and thank you. Your Feedback will Help us Serve you better.

Lightning can travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring. Even though your home is a safe shelter during a lightning storm, you may still be at risk.

Could Lightning come from space?

Not in ‘Deep Space’ as it’s commonly viewed, which is basically a whole lot of nothing. Lightning is effectively a large discharge of static electricity. With nothing around, there’s nothing to build up a charge. Which is by no means to suggest Earth is the only place with large static discharges.

Is it possible to get lightning in space?

Yes, lightning occurs in space . It occurs in the clouds of planets and in molecular clouds in space as well from other phenomena in space. These colorful flashes are called blue jets and they can stretch 30 miles into the stratosphere.

Another common query is “Does Lightning take up space?”.

One source argued that the Empire State Building was once used as a lightning laboratory because it is hit nearly 25 times per year, and has been known to have been hit up to a dozen times during a single storm. Myth #2 – Lightning only strikes the tallest objects. Fact: Lightning is indiscriminate and it can find you anywhere. Lightning may hit the ground instead.

Does Lightning come from Outer Space?

This idea is not new: More than 20 years ago, physicist Alex Gurevich at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow suggested lightning might be initiated by cosmic rays from outer space. These particles strike Earth with gargantuan amounts of energy surpassing anything the most powerful atom smashers on the planet are capable of.

Electrons, flowing as the lightning propagates, are free electrons, not bound to nuclei, and if they accelerate, they can emit visible light. Thus lightning would be possible in vacuum, and it could be visible too. Is lightning an example of energy emision from accelerated charge? The sort answer is no.

Is it safe to be inside during a lightning storm?

Even though your home is a safe shelter during a lightning storm, you may still be at risk. About one-third of lightning-strike injuries occur indoors. Here are some tips to keep safe and reduce your risk of being struck by lightning while indoors., and avoid water.

Basically, lightning is visible because of the heat that is generated in the molecules of air, and the flow of the current is possible only because air atoms are ionized by the electric field, and the air molecules, in a plasma form, have atoms in excited state, and when these relax, they emit visible light.

Can a grenade explode in a vacuum?

First, in the instance of a grenade, frag or High explosive, it would and could theoretically explode in a vacuum, however, it most definitely would not look like the movies or make any sound in space. Since it needs no outside sources of oxygen to explode, it would start of like a normal earthly explosive reaction.

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Solar eclipse 2024 weather prospects: Q&A with an expert

Taking a deeper look into climatology and other factors to better understand an early outlook for eclipse weather along the path of totality on April 8.

A graphic showing the path of totality for the april 8 solar eclipse and the mean cloud cover.

The total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 , will be a historic event that many across the United States will want to be part of. However, if the weather does not cooperate during those few minutes you get in each location in the path of totality, it could bring quite the anxiety and disappointment for those spending time, money, and resources to have the best experience. 

That's why all eyes are on any and all information to determine the weather forecast to prepare as early as possible where the best location might be to have the best chance at clear skies, and for event organizers, to have a backup plan if skies turn cloudy and stormy. 

The map above is all over the internet, showing the cloud climatology (or the study of climate) over the past 28 years compiled from data from Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) . While this image indicates that certain areas like Texas have historically had much clearer skies versus parts of the Northeast, there remains uncertainty of what could happen this year, which will depend on what types of weather systems develop and will be moving across the country days and even weeks leading up to the main event. 

Related: What will it be like to experience the total solar eclipse 2024?

As a meteorologist myself, I can tell you that for others both in the broadcasting field and working for weather forecast agencies such as the National Weather Service , compiling a forecast (especially for big events like this) is no easy task.

We have to take several things into consideration the closer we get to April 8 using numerical weather prediction models (both short and long term) , satellite and radar data, and on the day of, weather observations as they come in. 

Yes, climatology is important too, but as I mentioned above, there are no guarantees one year will be exactly like a previous one or stick to the average — remember, like an average of numbers, it takes many different ones both high and low to come to that middle ground summary. 

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So, to give us an even better perspective on what goes into climate studies and how forecasts will continue to gain more accuracy the closer we get to the eclipse, we spoke with Canadian Meteorologist Jay Anderson, (who's also a passionate eclipse chaser) with 40 years of experience both with weather forecasting and seeing eclipses in all types of scenarios. 

Jay Anderson is a meteorologist with over 40 years of experience both with weather forecasting and chasing eclipses. He owns and runs, a one-stop-shop for anyone looking for climate and weather information that coincides with celestial events such as solar eclipses, auroras, planetary transits, comets, and occultations. 

Space.Com: Jay, for those us of with experience in the field of forecasting, we are used to the process of what goes into trying to figure out what Mother Nature has in store. But for the average reader, there's so much to learn and know. I'd like to start by referencing your site, Eclipsophile , where you've put together information anyone can access that combines factual data and statistics paired with your experience.  

Jay Anderson: Someone traveling to the eclipse is going to want weather information a long way ahead and that's what the material on my Eclipsophile website attempts to answer. It tells them where to head for the best chances, but, of course, doesn't guarantee them the eclipse — that has to come later, in the days before the shadow comes by, when they turn to forecasts. 

For someone staying at home, climatology has relatively little value. Instead, the local forecasts will lead them to a viewing spot if they are enthusiastic enough to want to leave home for a short journey. 

Space.Com: So where we are at right now, we take the focus to climatology as we still are days away from when many computer models start to produce data for long-range forecasts. There's been talk that this is an " El Nino " year that might have some impacts.

Anderson: The impact of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is something that comes up for nearly every eclipse, but particularly for this one which comes at the end of an El Nino winter. I was not expecting the strong signal that appeared when I examined the effects of Pacific warming on eclipse-track cloud cover, but it's since been backed up by another investigation and by other datasets. 

El Nino brings a sunnier than average spring to Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and parts of other states in the middle of the track, but does little for places farther north when compared to neutral ENSO conditions. However, the impact of El Nino is still a climate statistic, one of several, and will be superseded by numerical forecasts in a few more days. I completed a map of February cloudiness to see how the spring has been evolving and it turns out the month has been quite a bit sunnier than normal along the track. It is reassuring, but what it means for eclipse day is up in the air.

Space.Com: What about the topography of the areas in the path of totality as well as what season we are in? Will that make a difference?

Anderson: In this eclipse, it makes a difference. The Gulf Coastal Plain in Texas and the lowlands along the Mississippi are highways for cloud and moisture spreading northward from the Gulf of Mexico. However, the flow comes up against the Balcones Escarpment in Texas Hill Country, which is high enough to block the shallower moisture intrusions. 

Farther north, the lowlands from North Texas to Missouri are well known for fog and low clouds , and here again, the higher terrain on the west side of the track often remains clear when the lowlands are socked in. It all adds up to about 10-15 percent less cloud on the west side of the track compared to the east.

Farther north, the springtime climatology is so cloudy that terrain doesn't make much difference until you get past the Great Lakes and into the Appalachians. One bright spot is along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, where sunshine is a little more abundant because the flow off of the lakes suppresses convection for a short distance inland. It takes just the right weather pattern to make this work, but Cleveland, Erie, and Rochester reap the benefits when it happens.

Space.Com: Let's say we do have some clouds during totality and leading up to it. Can you still see the eclipse occurring or is there a point of no return we could get to with too many clouds?

Anderson: I've seen more than a few of my 25 eclipses through cirrus clouds and one through heavy overcast (in China, with a break at the right moment). Cirrus is going to be the major problem in Mexico and also in Texas, brought in by the sub-tropical jet. Because of the China experience, I'm not ready to write off any amount of cloud cover, but you've got to be lucky. A big comma-cloud system over the Northeast States with a cold front to Texas would leave a lot of folks disappointed. Cumulus will disappear as the shadow brings cooler temperatures; thunderstorms will not — they hardly even notice an eclipse. Fortunately, there are usually clear skies somewhere nearby when thunderstorms are present.

Space.Com: All right, so based on everything we've talked about and you studied, where do you feel will be the best place to view the April total solar eclipse?

Anderson: Mazatlan and the interior Mexican Plateau have the best climatology. I'm going to be in Torreon, near the point of maximum eclipse. In the U.S., crowd up against the Mexican border on the west side of the shadow path. In Canada, try Prince Edward Island or the area around Kingston or Niagara Falls. Better yet, watch the forecast two days before and then pick. I guarantee that some areas expected to be cloudy will be clear and some of those expected to be clear will be cloudy.

Space.Com: As we move into the end of March, we will start to get data from the longer-range forecast models and then the closer and closer we get, the more fine-tuned the weather forecasts will be. Let's go over that timeline.

Anderson: There are many levels of sophistication in the use of computer models. To storm chasers, they are second nature, for others, a bit of a mystery as they've probably never encountered them before. I point people to the raw numerical output so that they can look at a couple of models to see where there is agreement and disagreement. When we get to within four or five days of the eclipse, those models will be giving a more reliable signal that can be used for advanced planning. 

Two days out, they can be used to select a final site [to watch the eclipse] if they are willing to travel to a sunny spot. For the casual eclipse watcher at short notice, the local TV forecast will do. In short, use climatology for another 10 days or so if you're determined to see this thing, and then gradually switch to the models after April 3 (but peek at them beforehand if curiosity gets the better of you). 

Space.Com: Thank you Jay! Any final advice or thoughts?

Anderson: Move early to get into place — at least a day beforehand. When eclipse day is here and you leave home to find a sunny spot, use the satellite images online or on TV. There will be millions of others doing much the same. To me, eclipses are all about travel, and I have that luxury in my retirement. 

There won't be another in the Lower 48 until the 2040s, so grab this opportunity while you can. Share it with family, and someday in the future, your grandkids will talk about sharing this eclipse with you as they share with theirs.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: [email protected].

Meredith Garofalo

Meredith is a regional Murrow award-winning Certified Broadcast Meteorologist and science/space correspondent. She most recently was a Freelance Meteorologist for NY 1 in New York City & the 19 First Alert Weather Team in Cleveland. A self-described "Rocket Girl," Meredith's personal and professional work has drawn recognition over the last decade, including the inaugural Valparaiso University Alumni Association First Decade Achievement Award, two special reports in News 12's Climate Special "Saving Our Shores" that won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, multiple Fair Media Council Folio & Press Club of Long Island awards for meteorology & reporting, and a Long Island Business News & NYC TV Week "40 Under 40" Award.

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Highlights From SpaceX’s Starship Test Flight

The powerful rocket, a version of which will carry astronauts to the moon for NASA, launched for the third time on Thursday morning. It achieved a number of milestones before losing contact with the ground.

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Here’s what happened during the third test flight of the most powerful rocket ever built.

Spacex launches starship for third time, the rocket, a version of which will eventually carry nasa astronauts to the moon, traveled almost halfway around the earth before it was lost as it re-entered the atmosphere..

“Five, four, three, two, three, one.” “This point, we’ve already passed through Max-Q, maximum dynamic pressure. And passing supersonic, so we’re now moving faster than the speed of sound. Getting those on-board views from the ship cameras. Boosters now making its way back, seeing six engines ignited on ship. Kate, we got a Starship on its way to space and a booster on the way back to the Gulf.” “Oh, man. I need a moment to pick my jaw up from the floor because these views are just stunning.”

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The third try turned out to be closer to the charm for Elon Musk and SpaceX, as his company’s mammoth Starship rocket launched on Thursday and traveled about halfway around the Earth before it was lost as it re-entered the atmosphere.

The test flight achieved several key milestones in the development of the vehicle, which could alter the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.

This particular flight was not, by design, intended to make it all the way around the Earth. At 8:25 a.m. Central time, Starship — the biggest and most powerful rocket ever to fly — lifted off from the coast of South Texas. The ascent was smooth, with the upper Starship stage reaching orbital velocities. About 45 minutes after launch, it started re-entering the atmosphere, heading toward a belly-flop splashdown in the Indian Ocean.

Live video, conveyed in near real-time via SpaceX’s Starlink satellites , showed red-hot gases heating the underside of the vehicle. Then, 49 minutes after launch, communications with Starship ended, and SpaceX later said the vehicle had not survived the re-entry, presumably disintegrating and falling into the ocean.

Even so, Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, congratulated SpaceX on what he called a “successful test flight” of the system his agency is counting on for some of its Artemis lunar missions.

SpaceX aims to make both the vehicle’s lower rocket booster and the upper spacecraft stage capable of flying over and over again — a stark contrast to the single-launch throwaway rockets that have been used for most of the space age.

That reusability gives SpaceX the potential to drive down the cost of lofting satellites and telescopes, as well as people and the things they need to live in space.

Completing most of the short jaunt was a reassuring validation that the rocket’s design appears to be sound. Not only is Starship crucial for NASA’s lunar plans, it is the key to Mr. Musk’s pipe dream of sending people to live on Mars.

For Mr. Musk, the success also harks back to his earlier reputation as a technological visionary who led breakthrough advances at Tesla and SpaceX, a contrast with his troubled purchase of Twitter and the polarizing social media quagmire that has followed since he transformed the platform and renamed it X. Even as SpaceX launched its next-generation rocket, the social media company was dueling with Don Lemon , a former CNN anchor who was sharing clips from a combative interview with Mr. Musk.

SpaceX still needs to pull off a series of formidable rocketry firsts before Starship is ready to head to the moon and beyond. Earlier this week, Mr. Musk said he hoped for at least six more Starship flights this year, during which some of those experiments may occur.

But if it achieves them all, the company could again revolutionize the space transportation business and leave competitors far behind.

Phil Larson, a White House space adviser during the Obama administration who also previously worked on communication efforts at SpaceX, said Starship’s size and reusability had “massive potential to change the game in transportation to orbit. And it could enable whole new classes of missions.”

NASA is counting on Starship to serve as the lunar lander for Artemis III, a mission that will take astronauts to the surface of the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. That journey is currently scheduled for late 2026 but seems likely to slide to 2027 or later.

The third flight was a marked improvement from the first two launch attempts.

Last April, Starship made it off the launchpad, but a cascade of engine failures and fires in the booster led to the rocket’s destruction 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico.

In November, the second Starship launch traveled much farther. All 33 engines in the Super Heavy booster worked properly during ascent, and after a successful separation, the upper Starship stage nearly made it to orbital velocities. However, both stages ended up exploding.

Nonetheless, Mr. Musk hailed both test flights as successes, as they provided data that helped engineers improve the design.

Thursday’s launch — which coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the founding of SpaceX — occurred 85 minutes into a 110-minute launch window. The 33 engines in the booster ignited at the launch site outside Brownsville, Texas, and lifted the rocket, which was as tall as a 40-story building, into the morning sky.

Most of the flight proceeded smoothly, and a number of test objectives were achieved during the flight, like opening and closing the spacecraft’s payload doors, which will be needed to deliver cargo in the future.

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster this time, but did have it perform engine burns that will be needed to return to the launch site. However, the final landing burn for the booster, conducted over the Gulf of Mexico, did not fully succeed — an area that SpaceX will attempt to fix for future flights.

SpaceX said the Super Heavy disintegrated at an altitude of about 1,500 feet.

SpaceX engineers will also have to figure out why Starship did not survive re-entry and make fixes to the design of the vehicle.

Even with the partial success of Thursday’s flight, Starship is far from ready to go to Mars, or even the moon. Because of Mr. Musk’s ambitions for Mars, Starship is much larger and much more complicated than what NASA needs for its Artemis moon landings. For Artemis III, two astronauts are to spend about a week in the South Pole region of the moon.

“He had the low price,” Daniel Dumbacher, the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former high-level official at NASA, said of Mr. Musk, “and NASA chose to take the risk associated with that configuration hoping that it would work out. And we’ll see if that turns out to be true.”

To leave Earth’s orbit, Starship must have its propellant tanks refilled with liquid methane and liquid oxygen. That will require a complex choreography of additional Starship launches to take the propellants to orbit.

“This is a complicated, complicated problem, and there’s a lot that has to get sorted out, and a lot that has to work right,” Mr. Dumbacher said.

Thursday’s flight included an early test of that technology, moving liquid oxygen from one tank to another within Starship.

Mr. Dumbacher does not expect Starship to be ready by September 2026, the launch date NASA currently has for Artemis III, although he would not predict how much of a delay there might be. “I’m not going to give you a guess because there is way too much work, way too many problems to solve,” he said.

Michael Roston

Kenneth Chang and Michael Roston

A rare sight: Starship’s bright orange glow as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

Just past the 45-minute mark of the Starship vehicle’s journey through space on Thursday, something eerie happened. As it drifted high above Earth’s oceans and clouds, the spacecraft’s silvery exterior was overtaken by a brilliant and fiery orange glow.

Starship re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Views through the plasma — SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 14, 2024

When a spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere, the air beneath it gets hot — hot enough that it turns into a plasma of charged particles as electrons are stripped away from the air molecules. The charged particles create picturesque glows, like neon signs.

But seeing this happen in nearly real-time during a spaceflight is uncommon. That plasma disrupts radio signals, cutting off communication.

Such blackouts happen, for instance, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule returns to Earth from the International Space Station with its complement of four astronauts. Mission controllers must wait with bated breath to be reassured that the spacecraft’s heat shield has held up and protected the crew during atmospheric re-entry.

Until Starship succumbed to the intense forces of re-entry on Thursday, SpaceX used its Starlink internet satellites to relay the live video feed. The Starlink satellites are in higher orbits, and sending signals upward — away from the plasma — is easier than trying to communicate through it to antennas on the ground.

But Starship wasn’t the only spacecraft in recent weeks to give us a view of plasma heating. Varda Space, a startup that is developing technology for manufacturing in orbit, had cameras on a capsule it landed on Earth on Feb. 21. Before it parachuted to the ground, its Winnebago capsule recorded a day-glow re-entry. The company retrieved the video recording from the capsule and shared it online:

Here's a video of our capsule ripping through the atmosphere at mach 25, no renders, raw footage: — Varda Space Industries (@VardaSpace) February 28, 2024


Jeff Bezos’s rocket company could race SpaceX to the moon.

Which billionaire space company will get to the moon first: Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin?

At first glance, SpaceX seems to have a huge head start. It is about to launch the third test flight of Starship. A variation of Starship is scheduled to take NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon as soon as September 2026.

By contrast, Blue Origin has yet to launch anything into orbit, and its contract with NASA for a lunar lander for astronauts is for a mission that is launching in 2030.

But Blue Origin might still get there first. SpaceX faces major challenges with Starship, which is as tall as 16-story building, while Blue Origin plans to send a smaller cargo lander to the moon by the end of next year.

“This lander, we’re expecting to land on the moon between 12 and 16 months from today,” John Couluris, senior vice president of lunar permanence at Blue Origin, said during a n interview on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” this month.

The first launch of the Mark 1 version of the Blue Moon lander is what Blue Origin calls a “pathfinder” to test technologies like the BE-7 engine, the flight computers, avionics and power systems — the same systems that will be used in the much larger Mark 2 lander that will take astronauts to the moon’s surface.

The Mark 1 lander can carry up to three tons of cargo to the lunar surface, but will be small enough to fit inside one of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets . New Glenn has yet to fly, but the company says its debut journey will occur later this year.

After Blue Moon Mark 1 is launched into an orbit about 125 miles above Earth’s surface, the lander’s BE-7 engine will propel it toward the moon, slowing it down to enter orbit around the moon and then guiding it to the landing on the surface.

The smaller size means that the Mark 1 lander, unlike Starship, will not need to be refueled before leaving Earth orbit. Demonstrating that refueling technology in orbit will be a key test to validate Starship’s design. Refueling will also be needed for the Blue Moon Mark 2 lander.

Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos have already been beaten to the moon by another billionaire, Kam Ghaffarian , one of the founders of Intuitive Machines, which put a small robotic lander named Odysseus near the lunar south pole in February . That was the first private spacecraft to successfully make it to the moon’s surface in one piece (although its journey had some hiccups ).

As with every American rocket mishap, the Federal Aviation Administration will open an investigation to review what went wrong and what SpaceX needs to do to correct it. But if, as Elon Musk says, there are at least six more Starship flights this year, SpaceX will have opportunities to complete a full test flight.

Starship's third flight went very far, but like its first two flights, it was not a complete success. The landing burn for the Super Heavy booster stage of the rocket — the aim was to “land” it in the Gulf of Mexico — was not fully successful, and the Starship craft did not survive re-entry. But it was marked significant progress, because none of the problems from the earlier flights recurred, and SpaceX engineers now have data to tackle the new problems.

Michael Roston

On the social media site X, Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, congratulated SpaceX on what he called a “successful test flight” of Starship. The agency is counting on Starship to land astronauts on the moon’s surface as part of the Artemis III mission. Another vehicle, the Orion capsule, is to be used to bring those astronauts back to Earth.

SpaceX says Starship did not survive re-entry, but it achieved several key milestones during the flight. That marks significant progress since the second test flight. Elon Musk has said he hopes there will be a half-dozen Starship flights this year.

SpaceX says a dual loss of communication, both through its own Starlink satellites and other forms spacecraft communications with Earth, suggest that Starship did not survive re-entry. They’re still listening to see if radio contact resumes.

Video is gone. Telemetry is also stuck at a speed 25,707 kilometers per hour and an altitude of 65 kilometers. The reason is not clear.

Starship already has private customers booked for deep space trips.

Starship has not yet done a full orbit of the Earth, but SpaceX already has three private astronaut missions on its manifest for the spacecraft.

The first flight with astronauts aboard will be led by Jared Isaacman who previously bought an orbital trip on a Falcon 9 rocket that was known as Inspiration4 .

Then two other Starship flights will travel around the moon and back, one led by Yusaku Maezawa , a Japanese entrepreneur, and the other by Dennis Tito, who was the first private individual to buy a trip to the International Space Station in 2001.

Back in 2018 when Mr. Maezawa signed up for the lunar flyby, Mr. Musk said Starship would be ready by 2023.

Mr. Maezawa later called the mission ‘dearMoon,’ inviting people to apply for a seat on the trip. Last week, he acknowledged it was not going to happen this year.

“We were planning for our lunar orbital mission ‘dearMoon’ to take place in 2023, but seems like it will take a little longer,” he wrote on the social network X. “We’re not sure when the flight will be, but we will give you all an update once we know more.”

SpaceX is apparently also planning uncrewed cargo flights to the surface of the moon with Starship.

In March last year, a small start-up company, Astrolab, announced that it was sending a Jeep Wrangler-size rover to surface in the south polar region of the moon , and the ride would be a cargo Starship flight that would take it there.

SpaceX did not confirm the news.

This appears to be part of the expanding potential market for Starship. SpaceX also plans to use the rocket for launching its second generation of Starlink internet communications satellites .

Starship is re-entering Earth's atmosphere. We’re seeing the heating on the flaps, with video being transmitted to the ground through SpaceX's Starlink satellites. The view is incredible. Usually the plasma disrupts radio transmissions.

SpaceX skipped the restart of one of the Raptor engines on the upper stage of Starship. It did conduct the propellant transfer test and the opening and closing of the payload door, which means the flight achieved some of its experimental objectives during its coast around the Earth, but not others. Next stop: Re-entry through the atmosphere and a hard bellyflop in the Indian Ocean.

The music on the livestream is more old-fashioned than the ambient beats we’re used to during SpaceX video feeds. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about the views in space from the rocket, which are unreal, but have not always been visible as its connection to the ground comes and goes.

During this period of the flight, Starship is scheduled to perform several tests. The first, opening the payload door, is complete. It will also move several tons of liquid oxygen between two tanks within Starship. That’s a preliminary test for future in-orbit refueling between two Starships, which is critical for sending the vehicle to the moon. Finally, Starship will try to restart one of its Raptor engines in the vacuum of space, something it has not done before.

The payload door of the upper Starship rocket stage is now open. That’s how a future Starship will deploy Starlink satellites, and demonstrating that it works was one of the objectives of today's flight.

The engines on the upper-stage of the rocket successfully completed their burn. Starship is now coasting in space, on a trajectory that will re-enter the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.

We were watching the booster attempting to land in the Gulf of Mexico. But the camera feed cut off, and we're not sure what actually happened. The upper stage Starship is still continuing on its trajectory toward the Indian Ocean.

The Super Heavy booster stage of the rocket appears to be headed back to Earth. During the last attempt, the booster exploded at this point, so it looks like SpaceX has fixed that issue.

The large Super Heavy booster stage has separated from the Starship upper stage, which is on its way to space. The flight is looking good.

All 33 Raptor engines in the booster are working fine. So far everything looks good.

Less than 2 minutes until liftoff. Propellant tanks are full, and wind will not prevent an on-time liftoff.

Starship is less than 10 minutes away from its third launch. The countdown is going smoothly.

What will happen during Starship’s third test flight.

For its third test flight, Starship aims to fly part of the way around the Earth, starting from SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica Village, Texas, and splashing down in the Indian Ocean.

The earlier test flights — both of which ended in explosions — aimed to come down in waters off Hawaii. SpaceX said it had set the new flight path to allow for safe testing of things it hadn’t done before with the Starship vehicle.

The journey will start at the site that SpaceX calls Starbase, which is a few miles north of where Texas and Mexico meet along the Gulf of Mexico. The rocket, nearly 400 feet tall, will be mounted next to a launch tower that is about 480 feet tall. It will be filled with methane and liquid oxygen propellants during the hours before liftoff.

Three seconds before launch, computers will begin to ignite the 33 engines in the Super Heavy rocket booster beneath Starship.

Starship and Super Heavy will begin their ascent over the Gulf. At 52 seconds into the flight, SpaceX says, the vehicle will experience the heaviest atmospheric stress of its trip, a moment flight engineers call max-q.

If the stainless steel spacecraft survives that stress, the next key moment will occur 2 minutes and 42 seconds into flight, when most of the Super Heavy booster’s engines power down. Seconds later, the upper Starship vehicle will begin “hot-staging,” or lighting up its engines before separating from Super Heavy.

Super Heavy’s journey will end about seven minutes after launch. SpaceX would typically aim to return the massive rocket booster to the launch site for a vertical landing. But for the test flight, the spent Super Heavy will perform a series of maneuvers before firing its engines one last time to slow its descent into the Gulf of Mexico.

As Super Heavy is descending, Starship will be gaining altitude. About eight and a half minutes into its flight, its engines will switch off. It will then begin coasting around the Earth.

While floating through space, Starship will attempt several things that the spacecraft has never done. Nearly 12 minutes into the flight, it will open a door that in the future could deploy satellites and other cargo into space. About 12 minutes later, it will transfer propellants from one tank to another while in space, a technique needed for future journeys to the moon and beyond. Then, 40 minutes into the flight, Starship will relight one if its engines while in space.

If the spacecraft makes it through those experiments, the conclusion of Starship’s journey will start at about the 49-minute mark. The spacecraft is set to pivot horizontally into a belly-flop to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. If it survives the extreme temperatures, Starship will splash down 64 minutes after it left Texas. The company has said in the past that it expects the belly-flop ocean landing to end in an explosion .

After SpaceX completes its testing campaign, future Starship flights will return to the Texas Starbase site after they complete their missions in orbit. SpaceX is also building a launch tower for Starship at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where flights could one day launch and land, including the Artemis III mission that NASA plans to use to return American astronauts to the moon’s surface.

SpaceX has started the company’s official live video stream from Texas, a sign that it is serious about igniting the rocket in about 20 minutes. You can watch it in the video player embedded above.

What went right and wrong during the 2nd Starship test flight.

The second test flight of Starship in November got a lot higher and faster than the first attempt seven months earlier.

During the first launch outside Brownsville, Texas, in April last year, things went wrong from the start — the exhaust of the engines of the Super Heavy booster excavated a hole beneath the launchpad, sending pieces of concrete flying up to three-quarters of a mile away and a plume of dust drifting 6.5 miles, blanketing the nearby town of Port Isabel. Several of the booster engines failed, and the upper stage never separated from the booster.

Instead, the rocket started making loop-de-loops before the flight termination system destroyed it.

During the second test flight , all 33 of the booster engines worked during ascent. A water deluge system protected the launchpad. The upper Starship stage separated from the booster and then made it most of the way to orbital velocity. However, the journeys of both the booster and the upper Starship stage still ended in explosions.

For the booster, as it dropped away from the upper stage, 13 of the 33 engines fired again to guide it toward the landing location. Although this particular booster was not going to be recovered, SpaceX wanted to test the re-entry techniques that are similar to what it currently uses for its smaller Falcon 9 rockets. However, something went wrong. Several engines shut down and then one blew up, causing the destruction of the booster.

In an update posted on the company’s website on Feb. 26 , SpaceX said the most likely cause of the booster failure was a blockage of a filter where liquid oxygen flowed to the engines. The company said it had made design changes to prevent that from happening again.

The upper stage continued upward for seven minutes after stage separation. This was itself an achievement because the company completed a step called hot-staging, during which the upper-stage engines ignite before the stage detaches from the Super Heavy booster.

Because the spacecraft was empty, extra liquid oxygen was loaded to simulate the weight of a future payload it could carry to orbit. But when the extra oxygen was dumped, a fire started, disrupting communication between the spacecraft’s flight computers. The computers shut down the engines and then set off the flight termination system, destroying the spacecraft.

The upper Starship stage reached an altitude of about 90 miles and a speed of about 15,000 miles per hour. For a spacecraft to reach orbit, it needs to accelerate to about 17,000 miles per hour.

Frost lines have appeared on Starship and the Super Heavy booster as methane and liquid oxygen flow into the rocket’s tanks.

It’s sunrise in Cameron County, Texas, but weather reports show cloudy conditions persist. We’ll see if weather is going to keep Starship on the beach, but SpaceX says it has started loading propellants into the rocket.

Launch time is now 9:25 a.m. Eastern. SpaceX says winds are still a concern that could cause a liftoff to be called off, but it will go ahead with loading of propellants in the rocket.

SpaceX pushed the launch time back a little more, to 9:10 a.m. Eastern. They have until 9:50 to try today.

SpaceX has just announced the new target launch time is 9:02 a.m. Eastern, and the company said on X that it is clearing some boats from a safety zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Cameras from a number of space enthusiast websites like NASASpaceflight that are pointing at the rocket show there is still no frost on its side, so the loading of ultracold methane and liquid oxygen propellants has not yet begun.

As SpaceX prepares for its third flight of Starship, other space efforts have experienced difficulties this week. On Wednesday, Kairos, a rocket from a Japanese startup called Space One, exploded moments into its first launch attempt. And Xinhua, a Chinese state news agency, said on Thursday that two Chinese satellites were lost after a rocket failed to reach the planned orbit.

In a posting on the social media site X, SpaceX says that it is aiming for launch at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, or 30 minutes into the 110-minute launch window. There is a 70 percent chance of favorable weather. There have been concerns of high winds, especially at higher altitudes.

What is Starship?

For Elon Musk, Starship is really a Mars ship. He envisions a fleet of Starships carrying settlers to the red planet in the coming years.

And for that eventual purpose, Starship, under development by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX rocket company , has to be big. Stacked on top of what SpaceX calls a Super Heavy booster, the Starship rocket system will be, by pretty much every measure, the biggest and most powerful ever.

It is the tallest rocket ever built — 397 feet tall, or about 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty including the pedestal.

And it has the most engines ever in a rocket booster: The Super Heavy has 33 of SpaceX’s powerful Raptor engines sticking out of its bottom. As those engines lift Starship off the launchpad in South Texas, they will generate 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle.

NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket , which made its first flight in November 2022, holds the current record for the maximum thrust of a rocket: 8.8 million pounds. The maximum thrust of the Saturn V rocket that took NASA astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program was relatively paltry: 7.6 million pounds.

An even more transformative feature of Starship is that it is designed to be entirely reusable. The Super Heavy booster is to land much like those for SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets, and Starship will be able to return from space belly-flopping through the atmosphere like a sky diver before pivoting to a vertical position for landing.

That means all of the really expensive pieces — like the 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster and six additional Raptors in Starship itself — will be used over and over instead of thrown away into the ocean after one flight.

That has the potential to cut the cost of sending payloads into orbit — to less than $10 million to take 100 tons to space, Mr. Musk has predicted.

Starship and Super Heavy are shiny because SpaceX made them out of stainless steel, which is cheaper than using other materials like carbon composites. But one side of Starship is coated in black tiles to protect the spacecraft from the extreme heat that it will encounter if it gets far enough in its flight to re-enter the atmosphere.

Here is what to know about Thursday’s SpaceX test flight.

The third try was closer to the charm for Elon Musk and SpaceX, as the company’s flight test of the mammoth Starship rocket launched on Thursday and traveled almost halfway around the Earth before it was lost as it re-entered the atmosphere.

The flight achieved some key milestones in the development of the vehicle, which could alter the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.

This particular flight did not, by design, make it all the way around the Earth. At 9:25 a.m. Eastern time, Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever to fly, lifted off from the coast of South Texas. About 45 minutes later it started its re-entry, but communications were lost a few minutes after that. The company said the rocket was lost before attempting to splash down in the Indian Ocean, a sign that more work needs to be completed on the vehicle.

That reusability gives SpaceX the potential to drive down the cost of lofting satellites and space telescopes, as well as people and the things they need to live in space.

Here’s what else to know:

Thursday’s flight demonstrated new capabilities for Starship. In addition to reaching orbital speeds, the Starship vehicle opened and closed its payload door and managed to move several tons of liquid oxygen between two tanks within the rocket, a key test needed for future missions.

The Starship system consists of two stages — the Super Heavy rocket booster and the upper-stage spacecraft, which is also called Starship. The company intends both to be fully reusable in the future. Read more about Starship .

Thursday’s launch was the third of Starship. Here’s a recap of what happened last time .

For nearly $500,000, you too can have dinner in the ‘SpaceBalloon’ above Earth

'Space is for everybody.'

By Andrew Paul | Published Mar 18, 2024 11:30 AM EDT

SpaceVIP SpaceBalloon above Earth concept art

A luxury space tourism company called SpaceVIP is currently taking reservations for its Stratospheric Dining Experience. For $495,000, six participants will enjoy a Michelin Star restaurant-catered jaunt into suborbit, sans rockets or zero gravity. Scheduled to launch as early as 2025 from Florida’s Space Coast, the travelers will “gently lift” into the sky aboard the pressurized cabin of Spaceship Neptune, a supposedly carbon neutral “SpaceBalloon” designed by another elite getaway startup called Space Perspective . Over the course of six hours, travelers will be wined and dined by Rasmus Munk, Head Chef at Alchemist, a 2 Michelin Star “Holistic Cuisine” restaurant. 

What is “Holistic Cuisine?” According to a joint announcement , it’s apparently a meal that doubles as “an intentional story… that will inspire thought and discussion on the role of humanity in protecting our planet” while “challenging the diner to reexamine our relationship with Earth and those who inhabit it.”  The diners can ponder this while watching the sunrise over Earth’s curvature from approximately 100,000-feet above sea level.

“Embarking on this unprecedented culinary odyssey to the cosmos marks a pivotal moment in human history,” Roman Chiporukha, founder of SpaceVIP, said in a statement. “This inaugural voyage is but the first chapter in SpaceVIP’s mission to harness the transformative power of space travel to elevate human consciousness and shape the course of our collective evolution.”

Concept art of SpaceBalloon cabin interior

Space Perspective representatives also said they believe such a trip will spur what’s known as the “ Overview Effect ” within their “Explorers,” referring to the feeling of awe many astronauts have described upon the Earth from the heavens. If it doesn’t, at least their tickets reportedly will be going to Space Prize Foundation , a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women within the space industry.

Those astronauts, however, felt their Overview Effect after years of physical, mental, and technological training. With a pressurized cabin, stable gravity, and a Space Spa (the name for the bathroom), Stratospheric Dining Experience attendees can simply bypass all of that by ponying up 12-times the annual salary of a first-year public school teacher in the US. For a more generalized overview effect, one ticket is about 2,640-percent higher than the global average yearly wage.

Test flights will commence later this year ahead of the 2025 launch window, when SpaceVIP’s Explorers “will be making history by enjoying the meal of a lifetime above 99-percent of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Despite being replete with mentions of “space” throughout the press materials, the meal won’t technically be in outer space. At its apex, SpaceVIP and Space Perspective’s “SpaceBalloon” will be about 43 miles below the Kármán line . For an actual, albeit brief, trip to space, Blue Origin spots are reportedly going for about $250,000 a seat.

Andrew Paul

Andrew Paul is Popular Science's staff writer covering tech news. Previously, he was a regular contributor to The A.V. Club and Input, and has had recent work also featured by Rolling Stone, Fangoria, GQ, Slate, NBC, as well as McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He lives outside Indianapolis.

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    Changes in space weather could expose space tourists to radiation doses in excess of the recommended maximum 1 millisievert (mSv) yearly uptake for a member of the public and 20mSv yearly for ...

  25. Can lightning travel through a vacuum?

    Myth #2 - Lightning only strikes the tallest objects. Fact: Lightning is indiscriminate and it can find you anywhere. Lightning may hit the ground instead. Does Lightning come from Outer Space? This idea is not new: More than 20 years ago, physicist Alex Gurevich at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow suggested lightning might be ...

  26. Watch SpaceX's Starship Burn Bright Orange as It Re-Enters Earth's

    Varda Space, a startup that is developing technology for manufacturing in orbit, had cameras on a capsule it landed on Earth on Feb. 21. Before it parachuted to the ground, its Winnebago capsule ...

  27. Elon Musk Eyes Interstellar Travel After Claiming SpaceX's Starship

    Topline. SpaceX's Starship rocket will be on Mars by the end of the decade and a future version will travel between the stars, billionaire Elon Musk said on Monday, days after the company ...

  28. Solar eclipse 2024 weather prospects: Q&A with an expert

    Taking a deeper look into climatology and other factors to better understand an early outlook for eclipse weather along the path of totality on April 8. The total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 ...

  29. Highlights From SpaceX's Starship Test Flight

    This particular flight was not, by design, intended to make it all the way around the Earth. At 8:25 a.m. Central time, Starship — the biggest and most powerful rocket ever to fly — lifted off ...

  30. For nearly $500,000, you too can have dinner in the 'SpaceBalloon

    The high-priced trips are scheduled to start in late 2025. SpaceVIP SHARE. A luxury space tourism company called SpaceVIP is currently taking reservations for its Stratospheric Dining Experience ...