Bolts of Lightning

Clouds are building. There's a charge in the air. The hair on the back of your neck stands up, and power lines start to hiss. It's the perfect time to chase lightning. But the thrill of the chase can end with deadly results. So the challenge becomes getting the lightning to come to you. And to rise to the challenge, researchers rely on a favorite toy from childhood-- rockets.

Mike Stapleton has climbed the tower and is loading rockets into the launch tubes. These three-pound fiberglass rockets will tow 2,000 feet of thin coated wire into the atmosphere. Everything has to be just right.

Inside mission control, researchers monitor the electromagnetic field, or the amount of charge in the air. In fact, at one point it is too high for us to be on the tower. Everything is set, both on the tower, and in the launch bunker. The rockets are launched by compressed air so that there are no wire trailing back to us and the entire complex is unplugged.

Video and still cameras are loaded. It's show time. this impressive light show leaves behind an equally impressive souvenir. It is a fulgurite, a strip of sand fused together at 50,000 degrees by the bolt of lightning hitting the ground. The record holding fulgurite was found here measuring 33 feet long.

This is the International Lightning Research center near Gainesville, Florida. The FAA, Florida power companies, and the National Science Foundation fund the research to better explain the characteristics of lightning.

"On average a bolt of lightning is an inch wide even though it looks wider. A negative charge from the bottom of the cloud finds its way down in about 50 yard lengths at a fraction of a second. Meanwhile a bolt comes from the ground to meet it, and the flash you see is the transfer of energy," says doctor Martin Uman.

The rockets trigger lightning to strike the runway to study runway landing lights--the lightning rod so this sound wave sensor can measure the shock wave of thunder--the power lines to study transformers--and the house to test and better develop everyday appliances. But even with that research,

"There are many things we still don't know, including the amount of energy a bolt has, and why it connects with the ground where it does," adds Uman.

And so research continues, by striking this house, these power lines, and there are plans to strike an airplane on the ground--which makes the story of Benjamin Franklin and his kite even more incredible.

"He did a lot of important research, but he could have been killed too," says Uman.

As for today, the sky is starting to sing, and it's time to get inside so the research can continue.

The research center opened in the mid 1990's. Of the 70,000 rockets that go up during an active year, about 50,000 of them return by parachute to be used again.