New Lightning Imaging Sensor to be Installed on the International Space Station

The installation of a Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) on the International Space Station (ISS) will enable detection of 98% of Earth's lightning on an annual basis.

When the joint NASA/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2015, it left an invaluable 17-year record of Earth observation data collected by TRMM’s five instruments. One of these instruments was the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS), which collected data on day and night cloud-to-ground/water, cloud-to-cloud, and intra-cloud lightning and its distribution around the globe.

Now, a new LIS is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) that will continue and enhance this data record. The instrument is part of the Space Test Program-Houston 5 (STP-H5) mission, which is aboard the upcoming ISS cargo resupply mission (designated CRS-10). CRS-10 is scheduled for launch in mid-February 2017.

The LIS instrument comprises the sensor and an electronics unit. LIS is designed to detect and pinpoint lightning from thunderstorms, mark the time of occurrence, and measure the radiant energy. The interface unit is a new addition designed to make the ISS platform appear like the TRMM spacecraft to the LIS instrument in order to use the legacy LIS hardware. Image courtesy of NASA, GHRC DAAC, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

In all fairness, the LIS headed to the ISS is not really “new.” It actually is the spare LIS that was built at the same time as TRMM’s LIS and is identical to the TRMM instrument. After attachment to the ISS’ ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-1, LIS is expected to collect lightning data for two to four years or longer. These data and data products will be available through NASA’s Global Hydrometeorology Resource Center DIstributed Active Archive Center (GHRC DAAC), which also is the home for TRMM LIS data.

LIS on ISS builds on the observations from LIS on TRMM as well as lightning data collected by the earlier Optical Transient Detector (OTD), which was operational from 1995-2000. Overall, LIS on ISS will collect data to measure the amount, rate, and optical characteristics of lightning around the globe, both on land and over water. Specifically, LIS on ISS has five primary science goals:

  • Examine the uses of lightning for improving severe weather forecasting
  • Extend the global lightning climatology record
  • Estimate lightning nitrogen oxides to improve chemistry/climate and air-quality modeling
  • Determine the relationships between lightning, clouds, and precipitation
  • Examine the detailed physics of lightning discharges
A comparison of TRMM LIS coverage (colored areas between roughly 35˚ north and south latitude) and the increased global coverage of LIS on ISS (dashed red lines, roughly 54˚ north and south latitude). NASA image.

Once installed on the ISS, LIS will be able to collect lightning data between 54˚ north and south of the equator. This will enable LIS to detect 98% of Earth’s lightning on an annual basis, including observations of mid-latitude storms—storms that could not be detected by the 35˚ (later boosted to 38˚) north/south latitude limit of the TRMM LIS. Another LIS objective is to provide lightning data as rapidly as possible after a detected flash, possibly as fast as within two minutes. This feature will be an important resource for numerous applications including weather forecasting, storm tracking, forest fire monitoring, and aviation. In addition, LIS will enable cross-sensor observations and calibrations with the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) aboard the recently-launched joint NOAA/NASA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R), which is now known as GOES-16.

After a short check-out period to ensure that the instrument is collecting valid data, four Level 2 LIS data sets will be available through GHRC DAAC: science data, background data, near real-time (NRT) science data, and NRT background data. The NRT products are a unique addition to the LIS data sets and the first time LIS data will be available so rapidly after a sensor-detected flash.

GHRC DAAC is one of NASA's discipline-specific DAACs managed by NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project and part of NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). GHRC DAAC processes, archives, and disseminates NASA Earth science data related to hazardous weather, the dynamic and physical processes related to hazardous weather, and associated applications, with a focus on lightning, tropical cyclones, and storm-induced hazards. GHRC DAAC is a joint venture of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Information Technology and Systems Center (ITSC) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Additional Resources

Blakeslee, R. & Koshak, W. (2016). “LIS on ISS: Expanded Global Coverage and Enhanced Applications.” The Earth Observer, 28(3): 4-14. Available online at

GHRC DAAC home page:

GHRC Lightning and Atmospheric Electricity Research page: