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Space

From The Lab: Does lightning impact Earth’s atmosphere? French satellite aims to find out

An illustration of Taranis, a satellite mission that will investigate the energy discharges from thunderstorms into the atmosphere.
An illustration of Taranis, a satellite mission that will investigate the energy discharges from thunderstorms into the atmosphere. © CNES/ill./SATTLER Oliver, 2012

A French satellite mission is to attempt to unveil the mystery of energetic phenomena that occur above thunderstorms, such as Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) and Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes (TGFs).

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Scheduled to be launched on 14 November from Kourou in French Guiana, the Taranis mission will orbit at 670 km above Earth to analyse these spectacular events.

Thunderstorms produce lightning activity within the clouds as well as between the clouds and the Earth. Interestingly, this lightning activity appears to disturb the atmosphere well above the thunderstorms resulting in the creation of several phenomena that produce spectacular visual effects for a short period of time.

“The generation of TGFs requires the acceleration of electrons up to 30MeV which is very high. Our objective is to study the impact of TLEs and TGFs on the Earth’s atmosphere,” Jean-Louis Pinçon, who is the mission’s principal investigator, told RFI.

Jean-Louis Pinçon is the Principal Investigator of the Taranis mission.
Jean-Louis Pinçon is the Principal Investigator of the Taranis mission. © Dhananjay Khadilkar

“It was earlier believed that these phenomena are less frequent. However, that is not the case. There are tens of thousands of such events every day. So we cannot ignore the possibility that these phenomena could have a major impact on the physics of the atmosphere above the thunderstorms,” Pinçon said.

Pinçon and his colleagues from the Laboratoire de Physique et Chimie de l’Environment et de l’Espace (LPC2E) in Orleans will coordinate the scientific objectives and operational phase of the 100 million euro mission which has been built and funded by the French space agency CNES.

The satellite, which is the size of a small fridge and weighs 180 kg, boasts two optical cameras, photometers, X-ray and Gamma ray detectors. It also has electron detectors, instruments to measure the electric field in low and high frequencies, magnetic field measurement instrument and a probe to detect the fluctuations of thermal plasma.

The satellite is also equipped with a smart power management system.

The four-year mission is expected to release the first images to the scientific community at the beginning of spring 2021.

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