Monday, August 30, 2010

A new experiment designed to reveal the origin and structure of the universe

A new experiment designed to reveal the origin and structure of the universe has reached its last stop on Earth before it’s set to ride into orbit aboard space shuttle Endeavour early next year.

The long-awaited Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) arrived Aug. 25 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, secured in the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-5M cargo plane that arrived at the launch center with a late-morning touchdown on the shuttle's runway.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nurtured AMS from concept to reality.

"I'm very pleased to be here," Ting said as he waited for the experiment's arrival. He was joined at the runway by several members of the international AMS team and the STS-134 astronaut crew.

Boasting a large magnet and state-of-the-art particle detector, AMS will use its lofty vantage point on the International Space Station's main truss to measure cosmic rays with unprecedented sensitivity and accuracy. In addition to a better understanding of cosmic radiation -- a major challenge of long-duration spaceflight -- the instrument could uncover evidence of mysterious dark matter or missing antimatter, discoveries that would help answer lingering questions about the universe and its beginnings.

"Over the last 50 years, all our knowledge about space has come from measuring light rays," Ting explained. "Hubble Telescope is a good example. But besides light rays, there are charged particles: electrons, positrons, protons, antiprotons, helium, and antihelium."

Ting and his scientific team theorize that the best chance to detect these particles is in space, before they have hit Earth's atmosphere.

"And because it carries a charge, you need a magnet," he added.

Because AMS is the first experiment of its kind to fly in space for a long period of time, anything learned from it will be new knowledge.

"Nobody has really measured the charged-particle field precisely," Ting said. "So you enter into a new field."

The AMS instrument will be installed on the space station's main truss during the STS-134 mission, scheduled to be the last flight for space shuttle Endeavour. Led by Commander Mark Kelly, the mission's crew also comprises Pilot Gregory H. “Box” Johnson and Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.

AMS is expected to operate for the rest of the station's life, at least 10 years.

"It's a really neat design and as an astronaut, I appreciate the elegance of it," said Fincke. During the flight, the Endeavour astronauts will use the shuttle's robotic arm to remove AMS from the payload bay and hand it off to the station's arm.

"We're going to put it right on the space station. No bolts required, no human intervention," he explained. "Box Johnson's going to hit a couple buttons, and it's going to be captured automatically. The two umbilicals for power and data are going to stretch right in, and it'll be up and running."

Sponsored by the Department of Energy, AMS-2 was developed by an international team of 56 scientific institutions from 16 countries. The nearly 15,000-pound experiment was built and tested at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN, in Switzerland.

"NASA's extremely excited to have AMS on board the International Space Station, because we think that it is a perfect experiment for the International Space Station," said Trent Martin, AMS project manager for the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"It shows you can bring together 500 physicists, engineers and technicians and do a collaboration, build an experiment, launch it to the International Space Station, operate it for an extended period of time and hopefully get extremely exciting data that tells us something about the origins of the universe," Martin said.

Several members of the international AMS team gathered at the runway, excited to see the product of so many years of hard work finally on the ground at Kennedy. A cheer, followed by the clicking of camera shutters, met the cargo plane as it rolled onto the runway's parking apron for offloading.

Still in its packing crate, the 15-foot-wide, 13-foot-tall experiment was carefully removed from the cargo plane and transported to Kennedy's Space Station Processing Facility, where it will undergo final testing and integration before it's deemed ready to fly.

"We have our online testing that we have to do, which is basically making sure it works with the space station, making sure it can talk to the orbiter," said Joe Delai, payload mission manager for STS-134. "That should bring us to about the end of October, and in between October and February, the AMS folks will be calibrating their sensors. Then, we're ready for launch in February."

That's a sentiment shared by the entire team, including the STS-134 astronauts, who will have trained for this mission for about a year and a half when Endeavour is targeted to launch in February 2011.

"It's fitting that on its (Endeavour's) last assembly mission, the space station is going to be complete," STS-134 Commander Mark Kelly said. "It's Important to note it's going to be completed with a very complex and, hopefully, very successful physics experiment. We look forward to seeing the results that Dr. Ting is going to produce over the next decade."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Nasa's Next Mars Rover Starts Rolling

A test operator in clean-room garb holds umbilical cables for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity during the rover's first drive test.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project will launch Curiosity in late 2011 for arrival at Mars in August 2012. The mission will study whether an intriguing area of Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving evidence of whether life existed there.

On Mars, of course, Curiosity will not need an umbilical cord. It will communicate by radio, and it will be powered by a radiosotope thermoelectric generator -- essentially a nuclear battery that reliably converts heat to electricity -- to be installed just before launch.

Technicians and engineers conducted the drive test in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

NASA's hurricane airborne research mission GRIP 'Shakedown' Flight Planned over Gulf Coast

The first flight of NASA's hurricane airborne research mission is scheduled to take off from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 17. NASA's DC-8 research aircraft will be making a planned five-hour flight along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to Louisiana primarily as a practice run for the many scientific instruments aboard.

Mission scientists, instrument teams, flight crew and support personnel gathered in Fort Lauderdale this weekend to begin planning the six-week Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, or GRIP. NASA's DC-8, the largest of NASA's three aircraft taking part in the mission, is based at the Fort Lauderdale airport. The two other aircraft -- the WB-57 based in Houston and the autonomous Global Hawk flying out of southern California -- will join the campaign in about a week.

The target for Tuesday's "shakedown" flight is the remnants of Tropical Depression 5, a poorly organized storm system whose center is currently hugging the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana and moving westward. While forecasters do not expect this storm system to strengthen significantly before it reaches landfall in Louisiana, the system offers the DC-8's seven instrument teams an opportunity to try out their equipment on possible convective storms. Rainfall rates, wind speed and direction below the airplane to the surface, cloud droplet sizes, and aerosol particle sizes are just some of the information that these instruments will collect.

GRIP science team members and project managers are now meeting daily at the airport to review weather forecasts and plan upcoming flights with their counterparts in two other airborne hurricane research missions sponsored by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation. Instrument teams are also working on their equipment onboard the DC-8 in preparation for the flight.

On Sunday, Aug. 15, NASA's Global Hawk completed a successful test flight over NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., that took the remotely piloted plane to an altitude of 60,000 feet. The last of three instruments being mounted on the Global Hawk for GRIP is being installed this week.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Shocking Surprise from Supernova's Little Cousin

Astronomers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected gamma-rays from a nova for the first time, a finding that stunned observers and theorists alike. The discovery overturns the notion that novae explosions lack the power to emit such high-energy radiation.

A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star. The outburst occurs when a white dwarf in a binary system erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.

"In human terms, this was an immensely powerful eruption, equivalent to about 1,000 times the energy emitted by the sun every year," said Elizabeth Hays, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But compared to other cosmic events Fermi sees, it was quite modest. We're amazed that Fermi detected it so strongly."

Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, and Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) detected the nova for 15 days. Scientists believe the emission arose as a million-mile-per-hour shock wave raced from the site of the explosion.

A paper detailing the discovery will appear in the Aug. 13 edition of the journal Science.

The story opened in Japan during the predawn hours of March 11, when amateur astronomers Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima in Miyaki-cho, Saga Prefecture, imaged a dramatic change in the brightness of a star in the constellation Cygnus. They realized that the star, known as V407 Cyg, was 10 times brighter than in an image they had taken three days earlier.

The team relayed the nova discovery to Hiroyuki Maehara at Kyoto University, who notified astronomers around the world for follow-up observations. Before this notice became widely available, the outburst was independently reported by three other Japanese amateurs: Tadashi Kojima, Tsumagoi-mura Agatsuma-gun, Gunma prefecture; Kazuo Sakaniwa, Higashichikuma-gun, Nagano prefecture; and Akihiko Tago, Tsuyama-shi, Okayama prefecture.

On March 13, Goddard's Davide Donato was on-duty as the LAT "flare advocate," a scientist who monitors the daily data downloads for sources of potential interest, when he noticed a significant detection in Cygnus. But linking this source to the nova would take several days, in part because key members of the Fermi team were in Paris for a meeting of the LAT scientific collaboration.

"This region is close to the galactic plane, which packs together many types of gamma-ray sources -- pulsars, supernova remnants, and others in our own galaxy, plus active galaxies beyond them," Donato said. "If the nova had occurred elsewhere in the sky, figuring out the connection would have been easier."

The LAT team began a concerted effort to identify the mystery source over the following days. On March 17, the researchers decided to obtain a "target-of-opportunity" observation using NASA's Swift satellite -- only to find that Swift was already observing the same spot.

"At that point, I knew Swift was targeting V407 Cyg, but I didn't know why," said Teddy Cheung, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., and the lead author of the study. Examining the Swift data, Cheung saw no additional X-ray sources that could account for what Fermi's LAT was seeing.

V407 Cyg had to be it.

Half an hour later, Cheung learned from other members of the LAT team that the system had undergone a nova outburst, which was the reason the Swift observations had been triggered. "When we looked closer, we found that the LAT had detected the first gamma rays at about the same time as the nova's discovery," he said.

V407 Cyg lies 9,000 light-years away. The system is a so-called symbiotic binary containing a compact white dwarf and a red giant star about 500 times the size of the sun.

"The red giant is so swollen that its outermost atmosphere is just leaking away into space," said Adam Hill at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France. The phenomenon is similar to the solar wind produced by the sun, but the flow is much stronger. "Each decade, the red giant sheds enough hydrogen gas to equal the mass of Earth," he added.

The white dwarf intercepts and captures some of this gas, which accumulates on its surface. As the gas piles on for decades to centuries, it eventually becomes hot and dense enough to fuse into helium. This energy-producing process triggers a runaway reaction that explodes the accumulated gas.

The white dwarf itself, however, remains intact.

The blast created a hot, dense expanding shell called a shock front, composed of high-speed particles, ionized gas and magnetic fields. According to an early spectrum obtained by Christian Buil at Castanet Tolosan Observatory, France, the nova's shock wave expanded at 7 million miles per hour -- or nearly 1 percent the speed of light.

The magnetic fields trapped particles within the shell and whipped them up to tremendous energies. Before they could escape, the particles had reached velocities near the speed of light. Scientists say that the gamma rays likely resulted when these accelerated particles smashed into the red giant's wind.

"We know that the remnants of much more powerful supernova explosions can trap and accelerate particles like this, but no one suspected that the magnetic fields in novae were strong enough to do it as well," said NRL's Soebur Razzaque.

Supernovae remnants endure for 100,000 years and affect regions of space thousands of light-years across.

Kent Wood at NRL compares astronomical studies of supernova remnants to looking at static images in a photo album. "It takes thousands of years for supernova remnants to evolve, but with this nova we've watched the same kinds of changes over just a few days," he said. "We've gone from a photo album to a time-lapse movie."

NASA's Mars Rover Starts Rolling

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project will launch Curiosity in late 2011 for arrival at Mars in August 2012. The mission will study whether an intriguing area of Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving evidence of whether life existed there.

On Mars, of course, Curiosity will not need an umbilical cord. It will communicate by radio, and it will be powered by a radiosotope thermoelectric generator -- essentially a nuclear battery that reliably converts heat to electricity -- to be installed just before launch.

Technicians and engineers conducted the drive test in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Crew Prepares for Wednesday Spacewalk

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson spent Tuesday completing preparations for their second spacewalk Wednesday out of the Quest airlock to replace the failed ammonia coolant Pump Module on the S1 truss of the complex while the International Space Station Mission Management Team gave its final approval to proceed with the spacewalk.

NASA managers decided to begin Wednesday's spacewalk one hour later than originally planned. The additional time will allow teams to fine-tune robotic procedures and get some extra rest. NASA TV coverage now will begin at 7 a.m., and the crew is scheduled to switch to battery power at 7:55 a.m.

Overnight, ground controllers activated the Gaseous Pressure Regulator Valve (GPRV) for the Loop A Nitrogen Tank Assembly, lowering the overall pressure in the plumbing for the inactive cooling loop in advance of Wednesday’s spacewalk by Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson. The GPRV’s pressure reduction will assist in the closure of quick disconnect valves at the S0/S1 truss interface Wednesday by Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson as part of the isolation of the line for the removal of the fourth and final fluid line connector holding the failed pump module in place. The lowered pressure will also facilitate the remate of all of the fluid lines once the new pump is installed. That activity is targeted for the third spacewalk no earlier than Sunday.

Once outside on Wednesday, Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson will isolate the Loop A ammonia cooling line upstream from that final connector by closing quick disconnect valves, then will use a tool to vent residual ammonia from the failed Pump Module before the final cooling line is disconnected. That will lead to the disconnection of five electrical and data cables and four bolts from the old pump so it can be extracted from the truss through the use of a grapple bar and parked on a payload bracket on the station’s Mobile Base System. If all goes as planned, the spare pump will be installed during the third spacewalk.

Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson conducted final timeline reviews Tuesday with flight controllers and moved into the Quest airlock just before 4 p.m. EDT to begin their overnight “campout” to reduce the nitrogen in their bloodstreams. They will be awakened at 2 a.m. Wednesday to complete spacewalk preparations and to suit up for their day’s work. This will be the fifth spacewalk for Wheelock, who will wear the suit bearing the red stripes, and Caldwell Dyson’s second spacewalk. She will wear the unmarked suit.

Monday, August 09, 2010

INSPIRE students Learn Flight Testing First-hand

Eight high school students who participated in the INSPIRE internship program at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center this summer learned first-hand about the start-to-finish process of flight testing experimental aircraft.

INSPIRE student interns Elizabeth Toller, Eric Chang, Bryce Anglin, and Brandon Le (standing) pore over data being downlinked from the DROID mini-unmanned aircraft during their flight test project on Rosamond Dry Lake.INSPIRE student interns Elizabeth Toller, Eric Chang, Bryce Anglin, and Brandon Le (standing) pore over data being downlinked from the DROID mini-unmanned aircraft during their flight test project on Rosamond Dry Lake. NASA Dryden controls and dynamics engineer Brian Taylor, who served as mentor to the INSPIRE interns, said the students modeled, tested, and analyzed the aerodynamic and mass properties of a large model aircraft called the Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone – or DROID – while going through the Dryden flight-approval process. The process included a series of technical reviews, safety analyses, development of mission rules and flight operations before conducting actual data-collection flights.

They then completed two days of flight tests in late July totaling nearly two hours of flight time on the DROID aircraft. All planned test points were completed during 13 short flights at the Muroc Model Masters model aircraft flight operations area on the north side of Rosamond Dry Lake. The students then analyzed the data transmitted from sensors on the aircraft, comparing the results to their models.

While one group of students flight tested the aircraft to determine the takeoff distance, best rate of climb, thrust required for level flight, and lift to drag ratios, the other group performed inertia swings on the aircraft in order to determine its mass properties.

NASA Dryden operations engineer Leslie Monforton of Tybrin Corp., who flew the aircraft for the students’ flight-test project, found the experience rewarding.

NASA Dryden’s DROID 3 radio-controlled model climbs out steeply following a takeoff during the INSPIRE students’ flight-test projectNASA Dryden’s DROID 3 radio-controlled model climbs out steeply following a takeoff during the INSPIRE students’ flight-test project. “It was a privilege working with these gifted students, both in coaching and flying the DROID for them,” she said. “They all will have a great future.”

INSPIRE – an acronym for Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience – is a multi-tiered year-round program designed for students in ninth-to-12th grades who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and careers.

“The INSPIRE summer internship program provides the opportunity for students interested in careers in engineering to get direct project experience prior to entering their senior year of high school or first semester of college,” said Kendra Titus, Student & Faculty Programs Coordinator at NASA Dryden’s Office of Education.

The DROID aircraft used in the INSPIRE flight tests is one of four such aircraft at Dryden used for research and for pilot training on remote-controlled aircraft.

Next Repair Spacewalk No Earlier Than Wednesday

The next spacewalk to complete the removal of a failed ammonia pump module and installation and activation of a new pump module on the International Space Station’s S1 Truss will take place no earlier than Wednesday.

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson completed the first spacewalk to remove and replace the pump module at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday. As the result of an ammonia leak in the final line that needed to be disconnected from the failed pump module, the day’s tasks were only partially completed. The decision was made to reconnect the line on the pump module and install a spool positioning device to maintain proper pressure internal to the ammonia line.

Teams on the ground are evaluating the impact of the leak on plans to replace the failed pump, as well as possible fixes for the leak. The completion of the process will most likely require at least two additional spacewalks.

Saturday’s excursion lasted 8 hours, 3 minutes, making it the longest expedition crew spacewalk in history and the sixth longest in human spaceflight history.

Wheelock conducted the fourth spacewalk of his career. Caldwell Dyson made her first spacewalk. Flight Engineer Shannon Walker operated Canadarm2, the station’s robotic arm, and assisted the spacewalkers from inside the station.

After the loss of one of two cooling loops July 31, ground controllers powered down and readjusted numerous systems to provide maximum redundancy aboard the orbiting laboratory. The International Space Station is in a stable configuration, the crew is safe and engineers continue reviewing data from the failed pump.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Galactic Collision

A beautiful new image of two colliding galaxies has been released by NASA's Great Observatories. The Antennae galaxies, located about 62 million light years from Earth, are shown in this composite image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), the Hubble Space Telescope (gold), and the Spitzer Space Telescope (red).

The collision, which began more than 100 million years ago and is still occurring, has triggered the formation of millions of stars in clouds of dusts and gas in the galaxies. The most massive of these young stars have already sped through their evolution in a few million years and exploded as supernovas.

The X-ray image from Chandra shows huge clouds of hot, interstellar gas that have been injected with rich deposits of elements from supernova explosions. This enriched gas, which includes elements such as oxygen, iron, magnesium and silicon, will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. The bright, point-like sources in the image are produced by material falling onto black holes and neutron stars that are remnants of the massive stars. Some of these black holes may have masses that are almost one hundred times that of the Sun.

The Spitzer data show infrared light from warm dust clouds that have been heated by newborn stars, with the brightest clouds lying in the overlap region between the two galaxies. The Hubble data reveal old stars in red, filaments of dust in brown and star-forming regions in yellow and white. Many of the fainter objects in the optical image are clusters containing thousands of stars.

The Antennae galaxies take their name from the long antenna-like "arms," seen in wide-angle views of the system. These features were produced by tidal forces generated in the collision.

NASA's Juno spacecraft Taking Shape in Denver

Assembly has begun on NASA's Juno spacecraft, which will help scientists understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. The mission, whose principal investigator is Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Tex., is expected to launch in August 2011 and reach Jupiter in 2016.

The assembly, testing and launch operations phase began April 1 in a high-bay clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. Engineers and technicians will spend the next few months fitting instruments and navigation equipment onto the spacecraft.

"We're excited the puzzle pieces are coming together," Bolton said. "We're one important step closer to getting to Jupiter."

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. Underneath its dense cloud cover, the planet safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

Juno will have nine science instruments on board to investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras.

"We plan to be doing a lot of testing in the next few months," said Jan Chodas, the project manager based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We want to make sure the spacecraft is ready for the long journey to Jupiter and the harsh environment it will encounter there."

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is building the spacecraft. The Italian Space Agency, Rome, is contributing an infrared spectrometer instrument and a portion of the radio science experiment.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

NASA's Lightning Research

Lightning's connection to hurricane intensification has eluded researchers for decades, and for a riveting 40 days this summer, NASA lightning researchers will peer inside storms in a way they never have before.

Earth scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will soon fly the Lightning Instrument Package, or LIP, a flight instrument designed to track and document lightning as hurricanes develop and intensify. In August and September, LIP will fly on a remotely piloted Global Hawk airplane over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 60,000 feet. LIP will be part of a NASA hurricane study called Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes, or GRIP for short. The study involves three storm chaser planes mounted with 15 instruments. LIP and the other instruments will work together to create the most complete view of hurricanes to date.

"We're now putting LIP on an aircraft that can stay in the air for 30 hours," said Richard Blakeslee LIP principal investigator and Earth scientist at the the Marshall Center. "That’s unprecedented. We typically fly on airplanes that fly over a storm for a period of 10-15 minutes. But this plane can stay with a storm for hours."

"We'll be able to see a storm in a way we’ve never seen it before," he added. "We'll see how the storm develops over the long term, and how lightning varies with all the other things going on inside a hurricane. It's the difference between a single photograph and a full-length movie. That’s quite a paradigm shift."

While scientists know an increase in lightning means the storm is changing, it remains a mystery as to whether that increase signifies strengthening or weakening. Though scientists have quite a few ideas, they lack the data to firmly establish a concrete relationship. Researchers hope LIP's upcoming flights will change that. If scientists can figure out the ties between lightning and hurricane severity, meteorologists may be able to greatly improve their short-term forecasts. Researchers have connected lightning to everything from strong winds to flooding to tornadoes, and a few extra minutes of warning time can save lives each year.

"We can use lightning as a natural sensing tool to see into the heart of a storm," said Blakeslee. "Lightning allows us to get at rain and other processes going on within a storm."

For Blakeslee and the rest of the LIP team, the hurricane study this fall presents a tremendous opportunity. In its nearly 15-year lifespan, LIP has flown nearly 100 missions in 10 major field campaigns, soaring over more than 800 storms. That's unparalleled for a lightning instrument, according to Blakeslee, and LIP researchers hope it will continue its long tradition of successful research.

The Guts of the Lightning Instrument Package

LIP's instruments may look simple, but they're surprisingly complex. To measure the electric field in a storm, the instrument relies on electric field mills, devices that allow scientists to measure the amount of lightning a storm produces. Originally developed at NASA, the mills look like big cans -- each about a foot long and approximately 8 inches across. As the instrument flies through the air, a plate covering each can rotates, covering and uncovering four metal disks housed inside. Uncover a disk and electricity from the storm rushes in. Cover the disk and it rushes back out. The whole process converts the electrical current from DC to AC and back to DC, allowing scientists to measure how strong a storm's electric field is, and how prone to lightning it might be. A sudden shift in the strength of the electrical field allows scientists to determine that a lightning strike has occurred.

In addition, a conductivity probe reveals how easily electrical current can flow through the storm to the upper part of the atmosphere. The probe is a small nose-cone shaped device with two sensor tubes attached to each side. As the plane flies near a hurricane, small electrical particles called ions rush through the tube, allowing the team to count them.

The LIP team uses all that data to determine how much lightning a hurricane produces and where it originates within the storm. By combining that data with wind speed, rainfall rate and other information, researchers can connect how lightning relates to hurricane intensification. And because Blakeslee and his team get their data real time, they can redirect the plane as needed to improve the likelihood of quality results.

After the summer hurricane study ends in September, the team will analyze, evaluate, and eventually release the data, a process which should take several months. Following that, the Lightning Instrument Package will continue to fly in hurricane and storm studies in hopes of collecting more data. The more data, the better the forecasts, Blakeslee said -- and the nearer scientists move to understanding these powerful storms.

The Long Journey of LIP

Of course, Blakeslee and the rest of the LIP team have had to overcome their fair share of challenges.

"When we first started out, we didn’t even know if what we do now was possible," Blakeslee said. "One of my colleagues told me, 'You won’t be able to make current measurements over storms.' But I said, 'Yes we can.' And now we do."

"It's a pretty rewarding feeling," he said. "The biggest challenge now is that there’s always more to study than we possibly can. We've got to pick and choose, and sometimes that can be frustrating."

But for Blakeslee, there's nothing else he'd rather do.

"Lightning is just cool," he laughed. "I've always enjoyed hands-on science, and everything about lightning measurements is hands-on science. You build the instruments. You put them on airplanes. You go out and fly them. You get back the data. And then there's the satisfaction that it’s not all abstract -- we can actually apply what we're learning to real people, real situations and real problem-solving."

For now, the LIP team looks forward with anticipation to sending their instrument out on an unprecedented journey -- hopefully one that will bring scientists one step closer to solving one of science’s biggest mysteries.