The first launch this year of a Roscosmos Soyuz 2-1b rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia went off without a hitch. Yes, even despite a bolt of lightning that struck the booster as it made its ascent.
At 06:23 UTC on Monday 27 May, the rocket lifted off to deliver a Glonass-M navigation satellite into orbit.
Just a few seconds later, lightning struck – as seen in a video posted to Twitter by Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin.
“Lightning is not an obstacle to you,” he said as he congratulated the flight team.
Поздравляем командование Космических войск, боевой расчёт космодрома Плесецк, коллективы РКЦ “Прогресс” (Самара), НПО имени С.А.Лавочкина (Химки) и ИСС имени академика М.Ф.Решетнёва (Железногорск) с успешным запуском КА ГЛОНАСС!
Молния вам не помеха pic.twitter.com/1cmlZ4hD1g
— Дмитрий Рогозин (@Rogozin) May 27, 2019
But it didn’t even slow the rocket down. It continued on its 3.5-hour journey to low-Earth orbit, where it delivered its payload on schedule. The satellite, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, was absolutely fine.
“A stable telemetric connection is established and maintained with the spacecraft,” an update from the Ministry’s communications department said. “The on-board systems of the Glonass-M spacecraft are functioning normally.”
As we have learnt from decades of air travel, a big metal object in the sky is not immune to lightning. Lightning strikes are relatively rare during rocket launches, as these events are usually scheduled for clear skies, but they’re certainly not unheard of.
The launch of the Apollo 12 mission aboard a Saturn V rocket on 14 November 1969 is a well-known example. The weather was cloudy, but not stormy; but, as the crewed mission launched, lightning unexpectedly struck the rocket not once, but twice.
This knocked a few things offline, including instrumentation, displays, telemetry and fuel cells. Some quick thinking from flight controller John Aaron on the ground and astronaut Alan Bean on the spacecraft saved the mission, and it proceeded to the Moon as planned.
Analysis later showed that “lightning can be triggered by the presence of the long electrical length created by the space vehicle and its exhaust plume in an electric field which would not otherwise have produced natural lightning,” according to a NASA report.
It was, thankfully, a lesson learnt with minimum damage. Now NASA launches have stricter weather guidelines, and lightning protection is built into launch facilities, as well as the rockets themselves.
According to a report from Russian news agency TASS, all Roscosmos carrier rockets have been designed to withstand such phenomena.
And in Russia, the weather conditions are not considered a problem. As General Major Nikolai Nesterchuk told RT, “The weather is not a hindrance, we are an all-weather troop.”