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Ride the Lightning
October 22, 2005 8:22 PM   Subscribe

Nova Science Now recently ran a segment on lightning (quicktime, real, and windows video here). I figured that subject was over and done with shortly after Franklin flew a kite, but it turns out we don't really know exactly what causes a bolt to start. The coolest part of the segment was these researchers in Florida. Scientists know how hard it was to observe, monitor, and even find lightning bolts, so these guys built their own rig. High-powered model rockets attached to a couple thousand feet of wire, which is grounded to larger metal structures on the ground. The result? Shoot a rocket into a storm cloud and you get instant lightning you can count on, measure, and control.
posted by mathowie (30 comments total)

 
Instant, controllable lightning.

There's no way this will ever be misused.
posted by S.C. at 8:24 PM on October 22, 2005


What could you do with misused lightning aside from maybe start a fire?
posted by mathowie at 8:34 PM on October 22, 2005


Attach the metal cord on the end of the rocket to an enemy's data center?
posted by Asparagirl at 8:38 PM on October 22, 2005


You're apparently not nearly evil enough.

Odd how they seem to miss (gloss over?) that fact that such a massive energy release could very well produce it's own x-rays and other radiaton.
posted by IronLizard at 8:39 PM on October 22, 2005


Addendum to my previous post: "...by an evil mad scientist." Mwahahahahaha.
posted by S.C. at 8:42 PM on October 22, 2005


I think the practical, malicious uses are pretty few and far-fetched. You would have to somehow channel the power to whatever you want to fry. what are you going to do, throw the cable at someone walking by?
posted by subaruwrx at 8:47 PM on October 22, 2005


Deniability, deniability, deniability. Who says the wire has to come from the ground? Ever heard of thor (flying crowbars)? Hell, in a few years they'll find a way to use something other than wire that won't be so easy to discover after the fact. Of course, your enemies all suddenly being struck down by lightning might be a bit obvious after a while. Religious leaders might love this one!
posted by IronLizard at 8:52 PM on October 22, 2005


why, why, Why didn't this get coverage on basic cable science channels and PBS starting about ten years ago? Was it because it's not cool enough?
posted by longsleeves at 9:07 PM on October 22, 2005


could very well produce it's own x-rays and other radiaton.

If you watch the segment, they do measure lots fo x-rays and that kind of points at a hypothesis they have for how lightning really starts inside a cloud.
posted by mathowie at 9:12 PM on October 22, 2005


longsleeves, I know I watched a show on the model rocket lightning seed technique several years ago, and have seen it plenty of tv.
posted by odinsdream at 9:17 PM on October 22, 2005


I did watch. They're only proof was that the x-rays spiked during the bolt. Cause or effect remains unclear. While they hypothesise that the x-rays are causing the lightning, they haven't mentioned that they may be caused by it instead.
posted by IronLizard at 9:30 PM on October 22, 2005


Looks as if the wire doesn't leave evidence after all. Wonder who will get it first? Conspiracy theorists's heads will explode the next time someone with a high profile gets struck by lightning.
posted by IronLizard at 9:33 PM on October 22, 2005


I think the practical, malicious uses are pretty few and far-fetched.

Archimedes' Death Ray isn't looking too feasible either. A sad day for aspiring mad scientists.
posted by homunculus at 9:34 PM on October 22, 2005


Here we are:

Uman, Joseph Dwyer and colleagues suggest that the breakdown of air - the process thought to generate the X-rays - is an important process for lightning and other atmospheric discharge phenomena.

The innovative rocket tower
The X-rays and other radiation may be generated when large electric fields manipulate electrons during the "dart leader", the phase that creates a path from clouds to ground for the lightning to follow during a strike.

"These results provide strong evidence that the production of runaway electrons is an important process during lightning," the researchers wrote in the journal Science.


I may have missed something here. The video mentions the x-rays and cosmic particles as a cause of lightning.
posted by IronLizard at 9:40 PM on October 22, 2005


Pardon me for the confused interpretation. Watched it again. They state that the x-rays and gamma radiation are proof that the lightning is caused by cosmic particles. My point stands. If lightning generates x-rays and cosmic particles generate x-rays, then which are they seeing? The little graphs they show are merely indicate the levels of x-ray radiation and in no way indicate how this proves their hypothesis. The narrators argument is falacious : Cosmic particles generate x-rays. X-rays are present when lightning strikes. Therefore lightning is caused by cosmic particles.

posted by IronLizard at 9:53 PM on October 22, 2005


So, my dad works making weapons for the Navy. He got his start in lightning weapons.

Best. Birthday. Evah.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:16 PM on October 22, 2005


What scares me most is rocket-triggered lightning causes gamma rays.


posted by wakko at 10:55 PM on October 22, 2005


So, what, 1.21 gigawatts?
posted by Smedleyman at 11:28 PM on October 22, 2005


Who will speak for the man-in-the-moon marigolds?

This reminded me of TRESTLE, reputedly the largest wooden structure ever built, which the USAF uses to test aircraft durability against EMP pulses. [huge image] It's meticulously maintained to this day. I'm not certain precisely how the ARES facility generates the EMP, but it's probably closely related.
posted by dhartung at 12:14 AM on October 23, 2005


Ok, I think I have this worked out. First, we have to keep driving our cars around in order to maintain the current level of catastrophic hurricanes. Then we must use the storm clouds to seed more lightning bolts; the energy of which we shall store in special batteries which in turn, will be exported to other areas of the world.
The awesomeness of nature.
posted by Demogorgon at 12:22 AM on October 23, 2005


I remember a documentary that showed rocket-induced lightning 10-or-so years ago. The scientists were at a New Mexico university.
posted by neuron at 12:39 AM on October 23, 2005


So, what, 1.21 gigawatts?

Actually, it's more like 3 terrawatts for negative lightning and between 3 and 30 terrawatts for positive lightning.

This hints at the most devious lightning weapon imaginable. The one where I go back and time and kill your grandfather.
posted by dsword at 4:32 AM on October 23, 2005


Maybe if we string up enough capacitors we could store the energy.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:20 AM on October 23, 2005


Oh, and...

I'm not certain precisely how the ARES facility generates the EMP, but it's probably closely related.

I don't think lightning is a good source of EMP, just because lightning doesn't react so well with wood.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:29 AM on October 23, 2005


wow, this is cool.
posted by 3.2.3 at 6:52 AM on October 23, 2005


An X-ray tube is just a glorified television tube with more voltage accelerating the electrons. I know that somebody has built an X-ray machine from high voltage television receiving tubes. I don't see how the presence of X-rays implicates cosmic particles. When you have high potential differences you'll generate x-rays as well.
posted by substrate at 6:57 AM on October 23, 2005


Too bad this research wasn't done in 1985. Marty McFly could really have used this.
posted by terrapin at 7:00 AM on October 23, 2005


I think you mean 1955. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:40 AM on October 23, 2005


This kind of research has been going on at Langmuir Laboratory at New Mexico Tech (my alma mater) since 1963 [photo]. They've gotten most of the press you may have seen on model rocket-induced lightning.
posted by ewagoner at 10:47 AM on October 23, 2005


Gah... that last link should have been to this Google search.
posted by ewagoner at 10:48 AM on October 23, 2005


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