Watch Sprite Lightning Flash at 10,000 frames Per Second

by Nancy Atkinson on August 7, 2013

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Elusive sprite lightning captured from an airplane above eastern Oklahoma as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.

Elusive sprite lightning captured from an airplane above eastern Oklahoma as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.

Mysterious red sprite lightning is intriguing: sprites occur only at high altitudes above thunderstorms, only last for a thousandth of a second and emit light in the red portion of the visible spectrum. Therefore, studying sprites has been notoriously difficult for atmospheric scientists. Astrophotographer Jason Ahrns has had the chance to be part of a sprite observing campaign, and with a special airplane from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Research Aircraft Facility in Boulder, Colorado, has been on flights to try and observe red sprite lightning from the air.

Jason had some success on a recent flight, and was able to capture a sprite (above) on high speed film. Below you can see a movie of it at 10,000 frames per second:

Pretty amazing!

Scientists say that while sprites have likely occurred on Earth for millions of years, they were first discovered and documented only by accident in 1989 when a researcher studying stars was calibrating a camera pointed at the distant atmosphere where sprites occur.

Sprites usually appear as several clusters of red tendrils above a lighting flash followed by a breakup into smaller streaks. The brightest region of a sprite is typically seen at altitudes of 65-75 km (40-45 miles), but often as high as 90 km (55 miles) into the atmosphere.

Some of the latest research shows that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.

You can read more (and see more images) about Jason’s experiences with sprites at his website.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

gopher652003 August 8, 2013 at 12:45 AM

Thanks for posting about this. I’ve never seen a sharp video of spirit lightning before (does another one even exist?). Great work Jason!

Jason A. August 8, 2013 at 6:12 AM

Well, there is one more, but it’s another one I uploaded :Phttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myHDv3Xn2_A

Otherwise the internet has a dearth of sprite images, particularly of high quality stuff. We do have quite a few of these high speed videos but they don’t really have an outlet to the public. I’d like to change that and leak a few more out. It certainly seems like people are interested, and that’s what we want.

Thanks for the compliment!

Denniswingo August 8, 2013 at 3:31 AM

Actually sprites have been noted by military and airline pilots for decades. A former Korean War fighter pilot who worked for NASA (Skeet Vaughn at NASA MSFC) funded the study that took the first pictures.

InTheory August 10, 2013 at 3:01 AM

Fantastic video! I’ve been fascinated by sprites ever since I first heard of them years ago. It’s great to see something new.

JJSEVEN August 16, 2013 at 5:18 PM

These things are so odd…

You’ve got a wave or bubble, that travels downwards. It’s like a charged membrane is being affected by some large field and pulled downwards. And then you’ve got a few focal points within that displaced membrane triggering some kind of large release of energy complete with what appears to be semi-stable globs of some sort of material exploding upwards and downwards at a good fraction of the speed of light.

I know these have been partially associated with terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, along with surprisingly large amounts of antimatter production in the form of positrons.

Wonder if that’s the mechanism we’re watching in the video?

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