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Small satellite takes on large thunderstorms
Date:11/17/2008

Firefly, it's called, this new small satellite mission sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It's designed to help solve the mystery of the most powerful natural particle accelerator in Earth's atmosphere: TGFs, or terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. TGFs likely result from thunderstorms.

The mission is the second project under the new NSF CubeSat program. A CubeSat satellite, about the size of a loaf of bread, consists of three cubes attached end to end in a rectangular shape.

The Firefly team is a collaboration of scientists and students at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.; Universities Space Research Association, Columbia, Md.; Hawk Institute for Space Science, Pocomoke City, Md.; and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne, Md.

"Integrating innovative and creative educational efforts with front-line research is what NSF is all about," said NSF Deputy Director Kathie L. Olsen. "The new CubeSat program uses the transformational technology of CubeSats to do just that. The Firefly mission is a terrific example of a program that will pursue scientific discovery, while providing unique and inspiring educational opportunities."

TGFs are short, powerful bursts of gamma rays emitted into space from Earth's upper atmosphere. The gamma rays are thought to be emitted by electrons traveling at or near the speed of light when they are slowed down by interaction with atoms in the upper atmosphere. These events may occur much more often than realized and may be associated with a significant fraction of the roughly 60 lightning strokes per second that occur worldwide. They could have a large effect on the upper atmosphere and near-Earth space, scientists say.

Build-up of electric charge at the tops of thunder clouds from lightning discharges can create a large electric field between the tops of clouds and the ionosphere, the outer layer of Earth's atmosphe
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert

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