Recently, SLS has designed a next-generation lightning monitoring system called Optical Jupiter Precision Lightning Surveillance. Unlike the CGLSS and NLDN systems, which cover large geographical areas, the Optical Jupiter system is much more localized—but for the area under coverage, it detects 100 percent of strikes, Mata says. That’s a significant improvement over other commercial lightning detection systems, he adds, which have particular trouble locating strikes that touch down in multiple places—about half of all lightning strikes.
“There have been instances in which we’ve been told there’s been a strike to one launch pad, and our Optical Jupiter system proves it wasn’t there,” Mata says. “In other instances, Optical Jupiter detects a strike right on top of the launch pad, but it was not reported by the existing commercial systems.”
Mata says he suspects that subsequent lightning ground attachment points, which can hit some meters or even kilometers away from the first strike, confuse the algorithms in some lightning detection systems, which could cause the system to throw out the data altogether or misreport the strike locations.
That’s one of the reasons the imagery from the high-speed video cameras gives a big advantage: because they offer “location information not based on waveforms, but on actual visual observations. No need to do math,” Mata says.
Those pictures are a large part of why NASA officials felt confident enough in the relatively untested system in 2011 to keep the Atlantis launch a go, Decker says. “It’s tough to argue with video. You could see the strikes.”
But the instruments also provide other important data, including intensity measurements, which can help gauge potential damage. A stronger strike will be more damaging at its epicenter and could also be damaging over a wider area.
Kennedy continues to use its version of the system, and now the launch pad contractor has a subcontract with SLS, based in nearby Titusville, Florida, to continue maintaining and monitoring it on NASA’s behalf.
The technology is also useful outside of the aerospace industry. For example, lightning is a problem on wind farms, where the tall turbines are prone to damage from strikes. Amid acres of turbines, it can be hard to pinpoint which one was hit, Mata says, especially if it continues operating.
“The turbine blade could start falling apart, and once you lose one of the three, you lose the balance and then the whole tower collapses,” Mata says. However, if you are able to tell a particular wind turbine has been struck, “you can shut it down before it catastrophically fails. You’ll have time to fix it and bring it back to operational mode before you lose a wind turbine.”
Insurance companies can also use the Optical Jupiter system to reduce their need for in-person claims investigations, Mata says. Rather than sending a person each time a client reports a lightning strike, the company can use data from Optical Jupiter to verify whether and where a strike occurred.
Each standalone system works on solar power, communicates through telephone lines, and can cover an area around three kilometers in diameter, though Mata says the best coverage is within about a kilometer or so.
SLS can also build custom lightning detection and monitoring systems that include both high-speed cameras and electromagnetic field sensors. Its current customers include lightning protection businesses looking to provide lightning location services across wider areas, such as airports, military installations, and cities.
The designs of the Optical Jupiter and other SLS lightning detection and monitoring systems were strongly influenced by the work Mata and his team did at Kennedy.
“The learning that we went through at Kennedy helped tremendously in the development of SLS’s more advanced, next-generation products,” Mata emphasizes.