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From Research in Review Magazine, Florida State University, Spring 2006:

NASA’s Lightning Lag

It’s easy to speculate on the wisdom of federal planners to put the heart of the nation’s space program in the lightning capital of the country. Since its days as a long-range missile proving ground in the late 1940s, Cape Canaveral has had to cope with that worrisome aspect of life in the Sunshine State.

NASA is none too serious about that. Nothing roars out of the Cape without a green light from the 45th Weather Squadron of the U.S. Air Force, based at Patrick AFB, whose primary job it is to be the weather eyes and ears for NASA at the Cape.

One of the toughest calls the squadron has to make is when to declare conditions “safe” after a lightning storm rakes the launch site. It’s fairly easy to forecast storm arrivals; much harder to forecast their exit and the point when the probability of lightning drops into the safe zone. Considering the cost of keeping people and equipment off the field, NASA wants the best, safest method possible for declaring an “all-clear” after a lightning event.

Geoffrey Stano, a doctoral student working with FSU meteorologist Henry Fuelberg, is working with Air Force meteorologists to devise a more effective way to determine when a passing storm has fired its last lightning bolt, whether at a ground object or between clouds—both considered hazardous to flight operations.

“At present, the Air Force has no specific guidelines to determine the end of a storm, when it’s safe to return to normal outdoor operations,” he said. “The result is that they keep their warnings up longer than necessary. We’re hoping to be able to forecast the end of a storm and say with a very high degree of confidence that it’s safe to send people back out after a certain time.”—F.S.


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