Photo: Annette Refn

Catapulted into the eye of a media storm

Friday 16 Oct 15

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Torsten Neubert
Chief Consultant
DTU Space
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THOR and ASIM

The pictures Andreas Mogensen has taken of giant lightning bolts and thunderclouds form part of the THOR project that DTU Space is leading and carrying out in partnership with the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI).

THOR is a part of the ESA-led project Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM), where DTU Space is responsible for scientific management and some instrument development. ASIM is the single-largest Danish space project to date, and the instruments will be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017.

ASIM consists of two cameras, a giant X-ray detector and three photometers designed to take measurements in different wavelengths of visible light. While ASIM is directed downwards towards Earth (i.e. aimed at the nadir) so as to observe thunderstorms with its instruments, the THOR astronauts will point their cameras towards the horizon. The objective is to develop THOR with the assistance of those astronauts who follow in Andreas’ footsteps, and to perform THOR measurements simultaneously with ASIM so as to observe thunderstorms in two geometries. THOR is named for the Norse god of thunder.

Torsten Neubert, Senior Executive Officer at DTU Space, landed with a splash in the media spotlight on 2 September, when Andreas Mogensen—the first Danish astronaut—travelled into space to carry out missions including photographing giant lightning bolts and thunderclouds for DTU Space. Here is what he has to say about the hectic days before, during and after the mission.

Monday, 24 August
I’m booked to take part in a press meeting at DTU Library together with colleagues from DTU Space and researchers from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI). We’ll be talking about what we can learn from giant lightning bolts, and how we can help Andreas to establish where powerful thunderstorms occur.

I bring a surprise with me to the press meeting. Without anyone knowing, I’ve emailed Andreas to ask if he’d like to send a video message. I know he’s in isolation in Kazakhstan, but I took the chance anyway. The day before the press meeting, I receive a video from him. It’s great. Andreas is highly motivated. He understands the relationship between ASIM and THOR (see box). I’m delighted.

The video is watched with great enthusiasm. A lot of journalists have made it to the meeting in the library. I find it quite surprising, as what we’re talking about is ‘dry’ science. And how many people are actually interested in hearing about Andreas taking photos of lightning? Quite a few, apparently ... 

Photo: Annette Refn 

Tuesday, 25 August
The comprehensive media coverage comes as a shock to me. I was previously the scientific manager on the Ørsted Mission, which involved Denmark’s first satellite. That mission attracted a lot of attention. But nowhere near as much as Andreas’ mission. I think it’s because everyone has some idea of what lightning is. It’s really great for me, personally, because my friends and acquaintances finally understand what my project is all about. It’s a satisfying feeling. If you work with something that is highly specialized, people have a tendency to ‘put you in a box’ and no-one dares talk to you. For the first time in my life, I experience the sense that the boundaries between me as a person and as a scientist are dissolving.

Thursday, 27 August
A significant change is made to Andreas’ space flight, as it will now last two days rather than six hours. The European Space Agency (ESA) starts work on adjusting Andreas’ work schedule. I’m worried that there won’t be room in his timetable for our experiments. As it stands, we only have two ten-minute periods of Andreas’ time. I don’t hear anything from ESA, so I simply hope for the best.

I’ve previously been associated with other experiments in space, and I know from experience that things seldom run according to plan. THOR is a high-risk mission. It’s like playing trumpet in an orchestra —if you hit a wrong note, everyone in the hall sits up and pays attention. There is a risk that we won’t get any pictures from space. However, we may also get pictures that tell us something completely new about lightning. I try to set the bar of expectations at a reasonable level. It will be a huge success if we can test work methods and procedures on ISS. 

Wednesday, 2 September
I get up at 4.30 a.m. The rocket carrying Andreas will be launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6.37 a.m. and I’ve been asked to provide commentary on the launch for TV2, together with John Leif Jørgensen from DTU Space, and Anja Andersen from the Niels Bohr Institute.

I’m a bit nervous on Andreas’ behalf. A rocket launch isn’t exactly risk-free ... I’ve previously witnessed two space shuttle missions that ended in disaster.

Challenger exploded during take-off back when I was working at Stanford, and Columbia burned up on re-entry. Professor Yoav Yair from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, who is assisting us in predicting thunderstorms, often mentions that there was an Israeli astronaut on board. This has taught me that you should never take anything for granted. After the first eight minutes, the Soyuz rocket has passed through the atmosphere, and I start to relax a bit. 

Photo: Annette Refn 

Friday, 4 September
The capsule carrying Andreas’ is docking with the space station, and we have organized an event in DTU Library. Several Danish news media are transmitting live. I feel some pressure when I’m interviewed live on TV; I must take care to express myself concisely and accurately, and to speak a little faster than usual. This makes me a bit nervous. 

Tuesday, 8 September
Andreas sends photos from ISS of thunderclouds over Mexico and the Caribbean. The pictures are beautifully clear, with excellent resolution. They show the clouds reaching high up into the atmosphere, drawing water vapour to the edge of the stratosphere. I’m delighted.

Thursday, 10 September
I’ve been informed that Andreas has taken some more photos. Around 8 p.m. an email arrives from my colleague, Olivier Chanrion. I’m over the moon. Andreas has used his ‘leisure time’ on ISS to film a thunderstorm over India from the Cupola, a large glass dome beneath the space station.

He managed to capture a Blue Jet, which is a lightning bolt that runs from the clouds up to an altitude of around 50 km. But that was not all. For the first time ever, we can see the Blue Jet pulsating— i.e. firing upwards several times in quick succession. They are the most wonderful pictures ever taken from space and they provide us with all kinds of new scientific information about giant lightning bolts.

Saturday, 12 September
I’m asleep when Andreas returns to Earth, landing in Kazakhstan at 2.51 a.m. I wake up at 7 a.m. and before I even get out of bed, I switch on my mobile phone and visit a website. The landing went smoothly, which is a huge relief.

Tuesday, 15 September
I read in the paper that Andreas was hugely excited when he was filming the storm from ISS. And Queen Margrethe has said that she is fascinated by giant lightning bolts. I’m amazed that we have done something that has captured the attention of everyone from the news media to the Queen of Denmark. It just doesn’t get any bigger than this.

Article in DTUavisen no 8, October 2015.