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Lightning Detection... in a Flash
Stormy weather approaching KSC Thunderstorms are unpredictable, menacing and dangerous. And since NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) averages 75 thunderstorm days a year, the risk these rumbling monsters pose to employees, facilities and multi-million-dollar launch vehicles like the Space Shuttle is a major consideration that requires plenty of analysis and extra caution.

Image to left: Black storm clouds roll in over the Vehicle Assembly Building, bringing thunder and heavy rain. Credit: NASA

KSC developed the Lightning Detection and Ranging (LDAR) System, which helps NASA minimize unnecessary warnings, allowing the workforce to get work done without endangering personnel or hardware. Even better, the system can also be used by utility companies, airports and more, directly benefiting people across the nation.

Using seven antennae located around the region, the LDAR system tracks the arrival times of electromagnetic pulses induced by lightning. An analysis of this data tells weather officials the exact location and altitude of all three types of lightning: intracloud, cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning. The system then provides a 3D view of lightning activity in real time within 75 nautical miles of KSC. This capability sets it apart from other commercial systems.

The LDAR II lightning mast But since computer screens are two-dimensional, how can the LDAR system display three dimensions of data? The LDAR display is broken into four panels, three of which displays the same lightning data from varying perspectives. The fourth shows a graph that gives the user a time reference for the data displayed.

Image to right: The LDAR II fiberglass lightning mast contains signal processors that provide data to a computer where the user can then interpret the extent of lightning hazard. Credit: NASA

NASA joined forces with Global Atmospherics, Inc. (GAI) -- now Vaisala, Inc. -- the world's largest manufacturer of lightning detection and location equipment that provides service to customers in more than 40 countries. The company contributed its extensive experience to prepare a system for commercial use. LDAR II, now marketed under the Vaisala name, was designed with utility providers, aviation companies, airports and launch centers with commercial space vehicles in mind.

Every year, lightning causes more deaths in Florida than any other weather hazard. But LDAR technology helps protect everything from people to space vehicles, electric companies and launch pads.

For further information, visit:
Spinoff Online: Commercialized NASA Technology
NASA Connections to Everyday Life
Lightning Detection in a Flash
Courtesy of the NASA Innovative Technology Transfer Partnerships Program
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center and Spinoff On-Line
Anna Heiney, KSC Staff Writer