Lightning Researchers Land NASA and NSF Research Grants

December 9, 2019

Physics professor and students are presenting their research at AGU’s fall meeting


SOCORRO, N.M. – Physics faculty member Dr. Caitano da Silva and two of his students landed three awards from the NM Space Grant Consortium this year to support their research on lightning and its impacts on our planet.

Undergraduate students John Pantuso and Sophia Salazar won Undergraduate Research Fellowships, while Dr. da Silva was awarded a Research Infrastructure Development award. The Space Grant Consortium is funded by NASA’s EPSCoR office

Caitano da Silva and his studentsDr. da Silva and four of his students are presenting their research at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif., this week.

(From right to left are graduate student Alex Attanasio, undergraduate student John Pantuso, Professor Caitano da Silva, graduate student Luis Contreras Vidal, and undergraduate student Sophia Salazar.)

Dr. da Silva is one of the researchers with NMT’s Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. The Langmuir research team studies lightning, thunderstorms, and their impacts in our planet using data collected in a unique field facility located atop the Magdalena Mountains due west of Socorro.

Dr. da Silva and his students augment the Langmuir research with the use of computer simulations, laboratory experiments, and theoretical plasma physics. His RID award from the NM NASA EPSCoR office looks into the energetic impacts of lightning.

Salazar’s research is focused on understanding the impacts of lightning at the edge of space (in the atmospheric layer known as the ionosphere). The support from the NM Space Grant office helped her land a Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) internship this past Summer at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Sophia was selected for the REU internship out of a pool of more than 400 applicants. The grant also funded travel to the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in Utah in the spring and extend her research into the fall semester.

Pantuso’s research focuses on studying energetic radiation – high-energy electrons, X-rays, and gamma-rays – emitted by lightning and thunderstorms. The undergraduate space grant fellowship supported his research during the past year, which is culminating in a poster presentation at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Pantuso also received a competitive travel award from AGU to present his research alongside 27,000 other scientists.

Graduate students Alex Attanasio and Luis Contreras Vidal will also present research at AGU.

“We are looking at the fundamentals of lightning physics,” da Silva said. “Lightning causes over a billion dollars in losses to the commercial flight industry in the U.S.”

The Space Grant Consortium support served as seed funding to help da Silva and colleagues to land a major NSF award, which will contribute to build a new lab in Workman Center called the Langmuir Spark Lab. He and Contreras, along with Dr. Richard Sonnenfeld, are constructing an instrument to simulate miniaturized lightning in the lab. Attanasio’s project involves observations and modeling of the radio discharges in the early stages of lightning. da Silva said they are probing the sources of these pulses to better understand the intricate plasma physics taking place in lightning channels.

– NMT –