Firefly is a new mission to study lightning and gamma rays with CubeSats, small satellites in the shape of a cube.
Click on image for full size
Image Courtesy of NASA/GSFC

Small Satellite Takes on Large Thunderstorms
News story originally written on November 17, 2008

Scientists and students have designed a new satellite called Firefly for the CubeSat program. The Firefly satellite is the size of a loaf of bread and consists of three cubes attached end to end in a rectangular shape. It'sdesigned to help solve the mystery of terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs), which are the most powerful natural particle accelerator in Earth's atmosphere. TGFs probably come from thunderstorms.

TGFs are short, powerful bursts of gamma rays emitted into space from Earth's upper atmosphere.Scientists think the gamma rays are emitted by electrons which travel at or near the speed of light until they are slowed down by atoms in the upper atmosphere. This process might have connections with some lightning strokes that happen around the /earth/earth.html.

Scientists know that lightning builds up electric charges at the top of thunder clouds, and this can create a large electric field between the tops of clouds and the ionosphere, the outer layer of the atmosphere. But they are trying to better understand how this process can lead to creating the TGFs.

"This mission could provide the first direct evidence for the relationship between lightning and TGFs, and addresses an important research question in atmospheric electricity," said Anne-Marie Schmoltner, head of NSF's Atmospheric Sciences Division's Lower Atmosphere Research Section. "Identifying the source of terrestrial gamma ray flashes would be a great step toward fully understanding the physics behind lightning and its effect on the Earth's atmosphere."

To accomplish these goals, Firefly will carry a gamma-ray detector along with a set of instruments designed to detect lightning. Students will be involved in all aspects of the project, including design, development, testing, mission operations, and data analysis.

Last modified December 11, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

You might also be interested in:

Cool It! Game

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Gamma Ray Bursts - The Most Powerful Objects in the Universe?

In the 1960's, the United States launched some satellites to look for very high energy light, called Gamma Rays. Gamma Rays are produced whenever a nuclear bomb explodes. The satellites found many bursts...more


Thunderstorms are one of the most thrilling and dangerous types of weather phenomena. Over 40,000 thunderstorms occur throughout the world each day. Thunderstorms form when very warm, moist air rises into...more

Thunder and Lightning

Lightning is the most spectacular element of a thunderstorm. In fact it is how thunderstorms got their name. Wait a minute, what does thunder have to do with lightning? Well, lightning causes thunder....more


Cumulonimbus clouds belong to the Clouds with Vertical Growth group. They are generally known as thunderstorm clouds. A cumulonimbus cloud can grow up to 10km high. At this height, high winds will flatten...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

Scientists have learned that Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, has erupted in the past due to the mixing of two different types of magma. "The data will help give us a better road map to what a future...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or...more

Its Not Your Fault A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults, causing earthquakes. Scientists have been looking at one of these faults in a new way to figure out why. In theory,...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA