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:
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.