Astrophoto: Laser Lightning!

by Nancy Atkinson on September 6, 2011

Lightning strikes during a test of a new laser guide star at the Allgäu Public Observatory in Ottobeuren, Germany. Credit: Martin Kornmesser, ESO

Yikes! This science-fiction-like scene was captured by Martin Kornmesser, a visual artist for the European Southern Observatory. Just as the ESO was testing a new laser guide star unit at the Allgäu Public Observatory in Ottobeuren, Germany, a thunderstorm erupted, throwing down bolts of lightning. The folks at ESO say this is a “very visual demonstration of why ESO’s telescopes are in Chile, and not in Germany.” Although the storm was still far from the observatory, the lightning appears to clash with the laser beam in the sky.

Laser guide stars are one type of adaptive optics astronomers use to correct for the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations. The laser creates an artificial guide star 90 kilometers up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The laser in this photograph is a powerful one, with a 20-watt beam, but the power in a bolt of lightning peaks at a trillion watts — although it lasts for just a fraction of a second. Shortly after this picture was taken the storm reached the observatory, forcing operations to close for the night.

See more info at the ESO website.


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

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