Andreas Mogensen captures first pictures of thunderclouds and lightning

Monday 14 Sep 15


Torsten Neubert
Chief Consultant
DTU Space
+45 45 25 97 31

Giant lightning bolts filmed from the space station by Andreas Mogensen

Andreas Mogensen used his ‘leisure time’ on the International Space Station to film a thunderstorm over India from the Cupola, a large glass dome beneath the space station. He managed to film a Blue Jet, which is a lighting bolt that runs from the clouds up to an altitude of around 50 km. But that was not all. For the first time ever, his film makes it possible to see the Blue Jet pulsating— i.e. firing upwards several times in quick succession. This is the effect often seen in ordinary lightning bolts as they head towards the ground.

View the film clip
Andreas Mogensen, Denmark’s first astronaut, has successfully photographed thunderclouds during his IRISS mission on the International Space Station. The images are likely to provide researchers with deep insight into thunderclouds and giant lightning bolts.

The Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen has succeeded in photographing thunderclouds over Mexico and the Caribbean from the International Space Station. According to the Belgian User Science Operations Center, the photography was completed without any problems. The photographs are already causing great excitement at DTU Space, as Torsten Neubert, Chief Consultant at the department, explains:

“The primary aim of Andreas’ THOR mission was to test work methods and procedures and to check whether the concept is sound. And we must say that the results were a resounding success. The pictures are beautifully sharp, with excellent resolution—and they show precisely what we had hoped to see. They identify the areas where the clouds reach high up into the atmosphere, drawing water vapour to the edge of the stratosphere. The next step is to link the photographs to data about lightning and cloud measurements form standard weather satellites.”

Completely new insight

The pictures Andreas Mogensen has taken are part of the THOR research project that DTU Space is leading and carrying out in partnership with the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI). Used in conjunction with other data, the pictures provide researchers with completely new insight into the effect thunderstorms have on the climate. It is essential to understand how water vapour is transported from a level close to the surface of the Earth to the very highest layers of the troposphere, because water vapour is an effective greenhouse gas.

To help Andreas Mogensen plan the photography from the space station, a team of researchers from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) and DTU Space perform analyses to establish where powerful thunderstorms are likely to occur.

“When preparing forecasts for where the astronaut should take pictures, we look for convection rising up through the entire troposphere, ideally into the lower level of the stratosphere. Convection of this kind is typically to be found in two different types of area: in connection with tropical cyclones, and in regions with high air humidity and low atmospheric stability. To identify these regions, we have checked forecasts of the stability, energy content and cloud conditions of the atmosphere,” explains Martin Stendel, Senior Researcher at DMI. He continues:

“Thus far, we have identified, evaluated, and tracked around 30 targets (cyclones). In addition, we have calculated where these clouds are moving in relation to the next orbit of the space station.”

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 some instrument development, while Terma heads up the technical consortium.

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 take measurements in different wavelengths of visible light, as well as a large X-ray detector. While ASIM is directed downwards towards Earth so as to observe thunderstorms with its instruments, the THOR astronauts will point their cameras towards the horizon. The objective is to develop THOR with the assistance of those astronauts who follow in Andreas’ footsteps, and to perform THOR measurements simultaneously with ASIM.

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