Guardians of the Sky: Overcoming Lightning's Fury for Mission Success

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Samuel Becker
  • 45th Weather Squadron

 Lightning Awareness Week is observed every third week in June. According to the National Weather Service, “the corridor from Tampa Bay to Titusville, FL, (a.k.a. “Lightning Alley”) receives the most lightning in the U.S. on an annual basis.”

In response to these threats, a series of specialized lightning protection systems have been established at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to protect launch vehicles and personnel.

“The catenary wire lightning protection system is engineered to serve as the primary target for a direct lightning strike,” said William Roeder, 45th Weather Squadron (WS) project emeritus volunteer.  “They promptly direct the strike's energy towards the ground, located immediately next to the safeguarded structure.”

Four lightning protection towers are also placed around the launch pad connecting the catenary wire system to ensure maximum effectiveness.

“Without the catenary wire systems and lightning protection towers on the launch pads, our launch tempo would be drastically reduced,” said Brian Cizek, 45th WS launch weather officer. "A single thunderstorm on the day of the launch could result in multiple rollbacks of the launch vehicles due to the high frequency of storms. This would risk a potential lightning strike that could damage our payload."

While ground-based lightning protection is essential, safeguarding the launch vehicle against lightning strikes during its flight is an equally critical aspect of space launches.

"Should lightning strike the launch vehicle, a series of events could potentially unfold," said Roeder. “It could damage the intricate navigation electronics and sensors, which are components designed to receive critical termination signals, should there be a reason to abort the flight."

Equipped with these systems, SLD 45 can preserve its commitment to Assured Access to Space while also ensuring the safety of those who make the mission possible.

“We take lightning very seriously,” said Cizek. “Along with the lightning protection systems located on the launch pads, we also have 14 distinct lightning rings scattered around CCSFS, KSC, and Patrick SFB.”

Lightning rings are designated areas established in the system to help protect critical sites, covering a radius of four nautical miles where personnel work, such as launch pads and industrial areas.

“These lightning rings allow us to warn certain affected areas approximately 30 minutes before lightning strikes by announcing a phase one lightning warning,” said Cizek. “This enables personnel to seek cover and ensure their safety before phase two occurs, signaling that lightning is taking place within their ring.”

According to Cizek, during strong thunderstorms it is not uncommon for the lightning towers to receive multiple strikes. Despite these dangers the 45th WS remains steadfast in its commitment to safety, accuracy, and reliability to ensure 100% mission success and Assured Access to Space!