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Grant sparks lightning research at Siena

Siena College, in collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Center, has received a $1 million grant to pursue research of lightning and gamma ray flashes.

The college received the grant after professor of physics Allan Weatherwax located the opportunity through the National Science Foundation.

According to Weatherwax, every year the NSF provides a mission, allowing colleges and universities to apply to work on the mission and incorporate its research into their collegiate studies.

Assistant Director of Communications for Siena College Allison Maloney said the academic institutions that are typically chosen for the grants are non-liberal arts schools with graduate programs -- two criteria that do not apply to Siena.

It truly is an honor to have had us receive the grant, she said.

The grant money will go toward the construction of a satellite, which the college has named Firefly, and the instrumentation that will be used to track the satellite.

Weatherwax expects construction to be completed sometime between 2010 and 2011, though he said the initial stages of construction, which include design, have already begun at the college.

"We're building everything here, and at NASA, they're building a lot of the instruments," said Weatherwax.

Weatherwax said that Firefly will not be a very large satellite and compared its size to a loaf of bread. Part of the reason it is so small is that a smaller satellite is much more cost effective to create and also easier to launch into space.

But the research information it will gather could lead to new discoveries about lightning and its interaction with Earth's atmosphere. What Weatherwax's students and researchers at NASA are hoping to explore is the connection between lightning and sudden bursts of high-energy radiation in the planet's upper atmosphere.

"A lot of things happen with lightning," said Weatherwax.

"It can crash into the upper atmosphere and produce gamma rays, which are the most energetic form of radiation in the universe."

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