In Greek mythology, it was a weapon of war.
Now the U.S. military is looking to tame lightning, which remains one of nature’s most confounding — and feared — phenomena.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA), the Research and Development arm of the Pentagon, has embarked on a $5 billion dollar project called NIMBUS, which seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms of lightning.
What is Project NIMBUS?
Lightning has long perplexed scientists. Not only are atmospheric scientists unsure of exactly what initiates lightning, but they also don’t understand precisely how and why it is able to propagate over great distances, and where it will strike. That makes it, in DARPA’s view, “one of the major unsolved mysteries in the atmospheric sciences.”
Lightning is not only little understood, it is dangerous and destructive. Strikes cause more than $5 billion in damages annually. NIMBUS will look at ways to protect against that destruction, including attempting to direct where lightning strikes. The initiative also includes plans to try to trigger lightning using rockets, which could be used to model and study the discharges.
This is by no means the military’s first foray into lightning research. Pentagon officials have in the past expressed interest in other enigmatic phenomena associated with lightning, such as so-called ball lightning. Though its existence is disputed, ball lightning is purported to manifest itself as luminous, energetic spheres during storms.
The Pentagon has even funded modest efforts looking at whether ball lightning could be used as a weapon. Another, somewhat more straightforward application of lightning, not mentioned as part of the DARPA project, is the possibility of creating a “lightning gun” — a weapon that shoots bolts of electricity. In fact, the Defense Department has funded work in this area. Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems, in Anderson, Ind., has built a prototype of a lightning gun, named Stun-Strike.
But don’t look to NIMBUS to yield a deployable death ray. DARPA says the project has a more benign goal: the protection of people and assets.