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Observations and Experiments

Observations and experiments are used to test hypotheses.

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Mystery Lightning
Teacher Contributed

The Mystery of Lightning

Why It Matters

What triggers lightning? Or is it the other way around…what does lightning trigger?

While the famous story of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite is ingrained in everyone’s understanding of the formation of lightning, scientists are still uncovering some key data centuries later. They have observed gamma rays (typically found near black holes) in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Students at Siera College in New York are working with NASA scientists and the National Science Foundation to build a milk-carton sized satellite and launch it up into the atmosphere to collect data that might link these gamma rays, called Terrestrial Gamma Rays or TGFs, to lightning. Firefly is set to launch next year. Check it out:

So what do you think? Is there a connection between TGFs and lightning? Is it a cause and effect relationship?

Explore More

  1. Make your own lightning! Use this simulation to manipulate the settings and watch your lightning grow: http://gamma.cs.unc.edu/LIGHTNING/applet/docs.html
  2. Are there other ways to collect data that supports this research? NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has detected antimatter above thunderstorms that they believe are formed from TGFs. Check it out: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/GLAST/news/fermi-thunderstorms.html Can you think of other ways to collect data? Can you think of other types of data to collect to help support or reject this hypothesis?
  3. In order for the Firefly and Fermi to collect data correlating TGF’s to lightning, it’s important to be able to track thunderstorms and place the instruments accordingly. Given actual weather data in this weather simulation game, predict where the storms will hit next! Try it out: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/?n=hotseatstart
  4. What step in the scientific method are the researchers at Siena College and NASA currently experiencing? Why? What are their next steps? Describe how the scientific method in this case may not be so linear.

Resources Cited

C. Clark. Wikimedia. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACloud-to-ground_lightning2_-_NOAA.jpg

NOVA. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/lightning.html

NASA. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/firefly.html


NSF. http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=124901

GAMMA research group. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. http://gamma.cs.unc.edu/LIGHTNING/applet/docs.html

NOAA. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ffc/?n=hotseatstart

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