Click to viewA NASA satellite called Firefly, that's not much bigger than a loaf of bread, is ramping up to study high-intensity electron beams created by powerful lightning storms. The energy released by these beams results in brief bursts of gamma radiation that shoot from Earth into space. Firefly will study these complicated energetic reactions using a total budget that wouldn't pay the salary of the average professional athlete.Scientists expected to find gamma ray bursts coming only from exotic objects in space, like in a neutron star or a black hole. But then the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory noticed gamma rays coming from Earth. They suspect that high-altitude lightning in massive thunderstorms creates huge, powerful electric fields that accelerate electron streams to incredibly intense energy levels. It's a bit of a mystery, so Firefly is on the case. NASA calls Firefly a "Nano CubeSat." This means that it is a small satellite that is roughly cube-shaped (really more of a large loaf shape). In fact, there's no nanotech involved here, but apparently "nano" sounds more awesome and spacey than "mini." In any case, Firefly is genuinely cool, because its entire development and three-year operating life will be completed for less than $1 million. So not only will the satellite detect electron beams, catalog gamma rays generated in Earth's atmosphere, and help scientists understand the energetic reactions that take place within the atmospheres of other planets — but it'll do all that for what amounts to spare change the government finds in between the couch cushions. The expected launch date is 2010 or 2011. Image by: RonAlmog. NSF / NASA 'Firefly' CubeSat Mission to Study Link Between Lightning and Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes. [NASA]