On his forthcoming space mission, Denmark’s first astronaut—Andreas Mogensen—will photograph giant lightning bolts and thunder clouds through the windows of the International Space Station as part of DTU Space’s THOR project—named after the Viking god of thunder.
The images will provide new insight into the basic physics that cause lightning. The researchers will also learn more about how thunderstorms transport water vapour close to the Earth’s surface to the upper troposphere and into the stratospheric ozone layer, and how this affects climate.
“For the first time ever, THOR will enable us to compare measurements from the space station with measurements from Earth. Among other things, the aim is to understand how thunder storms transport water vapour, a highly active greenhouse gas. Over the long term, this will reduce the level of uncertainty in climate models,” says Senior Consultant Torsten Neubert—head of THOR and the ASIM experiments at DTU Space.
Single-largest Danish space project
THOR is a part of the ESA-led project Atmosphere-Space interactions Monitor (ASIM), where DTU Space is responsible for scientific management and certain areas of instrument development.
ASIM is the single-largest Danish space project to date, and the instruments will be mounted on the International Space Station in 2017. ASIM consists of two cameras and two photometers designed to measure at different wavelengths of visible light. While ASIM observes the thunder storms directed downwards toward Earth, the THOR astronauts will point their cameras towards the horizon. The objective is to develop THOR using the astronauts who follow in Andreas’ footsteps and to perform THOR measurements simultaneously with ASIM.
Accurate weather forecasts
To help Andreas Mogensen plan the photographing from the space station, a team of researchers at DMI and DTU Space predict up to three days in advance where there are strong thunderstorms. The information is transmitted once a day to Belgian User Science Operations Centre, which then forwards it to the space station. Here, Andreas Mogensen is told when and from which window he can photograph images.
As the researchers are likely to have two ten-minute observation periods, it is important to provide Andreas Mogensen with an extremely accurate weather prediction.
“The challenge is that there are little useful lightning data and no lightning prognoses. That is why we are looking at different weather forecasts in an effort to predict where there are likely to be violent thunderstorms. Typically, these will occur over Central and West Africa, Indonesia and Northern South America,” says Senior Researcher Martin Stendel from the Danish Meteorological Institute.