During a thunderstorm, it’s normally the lightning bolts that take over Instagram — after all, it’s a little difficult to apply the X-Pro II filter to a soundwave. That is, if you’re a heliophysicist armed with rockets, your own lightning bolt, and some heavy science.

In a paper presented today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Maher Dayeh from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio revealed detailed acoustic maps he’d made of a lightning bolt — an image of thunder, in other words.

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To get the data, Dayeh went to a U.S. military installation in Florida, and fired a rocket trailling a copper wire into a cloud during a thunderstorm. The rocket triggered a lightning bolt, which travelled down the wire, allowing the team to record the thunder with 15 microphones set a meter apart. That produced the acoustic maps you can see above.

The experiments allowed Dayeh to map the acoustics of a thunderclap with “surprising detail” — and they also discovered that the loudness of a thunderclap depends on the peak electric current flowing through the lightning bolt. Plus, people got to shoot rockets into clouds and make lightning bolts. Science. [2015 Joint Assembly, Nature]


Contact the author at chris@gizmodo.com.

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