Watch A Rocket Get Hit By Lightning And Carry On Unscathed

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Rosie McCall 28 May 2019, 15:43

There was an unexpected turn of events at the launch of a Roscosmos Soyuz 2-1b rocket on Monday – the spacecraft was hit by lightning. In spite of the weather-related hitch, it managed to continue on with its mission undeterred and unscarred. 

Indeed, you can see it all in action. Director General of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, posted a video of the rocket being struck by lightning on Twitter

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The Roscosmos Soyuz 2-1b (a medium-range launch vehicle) took off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia, at 9.23am local time (2.23am ET) on Monday, May 27. Moments later, lightning hit.

Fortunately, the rocket has continued on unbruised by the attack – the lightning did not knock it off course or prevent it completing its mission of delivering an accompanying Glonass-M navigation satellite into orbit. According to a statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the lightning does not seem to have damaged any of the onboard systems. 

"A stable telemetric connection is established and maintained with the spacecraft. The onboard systems of the Glonass-M spacecraft are functioning normally," the statement reads. 

Incidents like this are unusual. One reason for this is that launches tend to be scheduled for fair weather days. In fact, poor weather is the most commonly cited reason for (literally) rain checking a rocket launch. 

According to NASA guidelines, take off has to be postponed if the chance of lightning striking within a 5 nautical mile radius of the launch pad is greater than 20 percent within the first hour of tanking. Similarly, if lightning has been detected within a 10 nautical mile radius, the launch has to be postponed.

But it's not just lightning. Other restrictions include average temperatures below 5°C (41°F), wind speeds above 34 knots (or below 19) at the 60-foot level, and any precipitation at the launch pad or within the flight path. 

On top of these precautions, various lightning safeguards are included in the design of space vehicles and launchpads to prevent damage.

Still, not all weather-related incidents have been as benign as yesterday's. In 1986, a rocket carrying a GOES-G satellite came crashing back to Earth after an electrical failure caused by a lightning strike. Fortunately, the rocket was uncrewed and NASA was able to destroy the vehicle before landing.

More tragic was the crashing of the Challenger space shuttle, just a few months earlier. The shuttle disintegrated shortly after takeoff, killing all seven US astronauts onboard. The accident was caused by a gas leak in a solid rocket booster joint but later investigations revealed cold temperatures were a "contributing factor"

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