Hidden thunder

Published: Saturday 31 January 1998

results from a satellite put into orbit to detect nuclear weapons in space have caused a stir in the scientific community. The results reveal thousands of times of more lightning from thunderstorms than scientists had earlier believed. Three months after its launch, Los Alamos National laboratory's Fast On-orbit Recording of Transient Events (forte) satellite is detecting thousands of radio bursts from lightning strikes. Data presented recently could help the researchers to locate these mysterious bursts called trans-ionopsheric pulse pairs.

First reported by the laboratory's Alexis probe in 1993, these bursts are powerful radio impulses -- a hundred times stronger and a thousand times briefer than the radio emissions generated by lightning -- and come from an altitude of 5-16 km in the vicinity of thunderstorm complexes. The data will help solve queries about the connection between the pulse pairs and thunderstorm activity. forte 's instruments detect, record and analyse bursts of radio energy and light arising from the earth's surface. Due to its better sensitivity, the satellite's detectors are spotting lightning strikes at a much higher rate than all previous probes, leading scientists to deduce that radio frequency emissions take place at a much higher rate than previously believed.

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