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Slideshow: In Frankenstein's Laboratory

How One Company Generates Lightning to Test Avionics

1 min read

At the cavernous lab of Lightning Technologies, in Pittsfield, Mass., you first hear a horn’s warning blast, then a huge kapow. That’s the sound that electrons make when 2.4 million volts send them burning a zigzag path through the air. The bolt proceeds from the hanging double corona ring to a model supplied by one of the lab’s clients, in this case an airline that needs to test how lightning affects its planes’ ever more pervasive electronic control systems. (If you’re a frequent flier, you’ve surely been zinged by Zeus several times already.)

The blue tower consists of a stack of capacitors separated by spark gaps. It takes five or 10 minutes to charge all the capacitors, but when they’re ready, a single spark jumping a single gap is all it takes to start the avalanche of electrons.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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