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On 26 March, the European Space Agency (ESA) twittered about a new addition to the International Space Station (ISS): the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, or ASIM. A collection of optical cameras, light meters and an X- and gamma-ray detector, the ASIM is designed to look for electrical discharges originating from stormy weather conditions. Scheduled to be taken up to the ISS next week, it will be the first instrument brought into space for the observation of what ESA callsthe inner anatomy of lightning.

ASIM is to be mounted on the outside of the Columbus laboratory, where it is hoped it is in a better position to observe the gigantic electrical discharges in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Fascinating displays of the processes taking place inside thunderstorm clouds, the biggest challenge has always been how to measure the phenomenon. Lightning takes place in a fraction of a second, over several kilometers. Torsten Neubert, science team coordinator at the Technical University of Denmark, trusts that ASIM will help with observation:

The science we hope to do by combining data from all the instruments is explosive. Simultaneous observations will bring a whole new insight. Up in the atmosphere, the thin air slows down and enlarges the discharges. That gives our instruments a better chance to observe them in all their glory.

The ASIM is a response to a casual observation made by an astronaut on the ISS. Lightning is one of the most frequent natural occurrences. Almost every second, lightning triggers powerful electrical bursts in our atmosphere. But the inner workings of lightning are still unknown. Indeed, when Andreas Mogensen directed a high-resolution camera towards a gigantic thunderstorm, while flying over India at 28.800 km/h in 2015, he made spectacular, first of its kind footage. He caught a blue jet, repeatedly shooting up into space towards the upper layers of the atmosphere – as high as 40 Km.

Mogensen’s discovery of the pulsating jet offered a new perspective on electrical activity at the top of tropical thunderstorms, and scientists quickly caught on. They learned what types of cloud can trigger the phenomenon, and how it may affect the chemistry of the atmosphere. These solid scientific results gathered a lot of attention. It also confirmed that the ISS is a great vantage point. Not only can it cover all main thunderstorm regions, 400 Km above the clouds, the space platform brings instruments closer to the electric events than any other means.

Lightning, through its effects on the concentration of atmospheric gasses, is important for the climate. New data will improve our understanding of the effect of thunderstorms, contributing to more accurate climate models. ASIM’s measures will be combined with those coming in from meteorological satellites, as well as ground observations from all over the world. More than 100 dedicated experts from 8 countries have participated in the project so far. All are eagerly awaiting the launch, next Monday, of ASIM, which is already sitting, waiting, in its SpaceX Dragon capsule.