Some night in the not-too-distant future, the evening weather news will be able to show precise maps of where lightning will soon strike across the country.

That's because this month, NASA contracted with a Palo Alto firm to build the first lightning mapper satellite.

"We'll be able to say 'This is a bad time to be out playing golf,'" said project manager Joe Mobilia at Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Advanced Technology Center

More important, the instrument may be able to increase the warning time for tornadoes from 12 to 20 minutes, he said.

"Lightning is a precursor to tornadoes," Mobilia said.

Aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration environmental satellite, which provides most satellite weather images, the instrument will monitor lightning between clouds and detect flashes in areas missed by equipment on the ground, Mobilia said.

The significance of the $96.7 million project is that it will give forecasters a "real-time assessment of all lightning activity," said John Leslie, spokesman for the NOAA.

"It will also give a more accurate picture of how intense a particular storm is becoming and help detect the onset of tornadoes," Leslie said.

Simply monitoring lightning activity likely will help save lives, Mobilia said.

"What people generally don't realize is there are statistically more deaths from lightning than there are from tornadoes," he said.

In the past 30 years, lightning has caused an average of 62 reporteddeaths each year, according to the National Weather Service, and tornadoes, on average, have killed 45 people annually in the past three years, according to the National Climatic Data Center

Mobilia's team in Palo Alto, working with researchers at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, hopes to launch the desk-sized device by 2014.

Among the challenges of designing a lightning mapper is being able to measure flashes during both day and night, Mobilia said.

"At night you can see the flashes, but during the day we have to distinguish that from normal sunlight bouncing off the clouds," he said. The instrument, which will be designed and built in Palo Alto, will rely on data gleaned from a series of initial flashes to determine whether lightning is occurring, he said.

When it launches around December 2014, the lightning mapper likely will be joined by a solar ultraviolet imager -- a $178 million NASA contract awarded to the Palo Alto group this fall.

Installed on the same series of satellites -- one above the East Coast and one above the West Coast -- the solar telescope will monitor the sun's activity to predict solar flares, which can overload power grids and cause transformers to explode, said project manager Mons Morrison.

Both instruments will be built to survive extreme temperatures in space for at least 15 years.

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