Astrophoto: Laser Lightning!

by Nancy Atkinson on September 6, 2011

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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.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Anonymous September 6, 2011 at 1:39 PM

I hope no one thinks the laser caused the lightning.

Anonymous September 6, 2011 at 1:39 PM

I hope no one thinks the laser caused the lightning.

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE September 6, 2011 at 4:18 PM

Nevertheless, laser-triggered lightning is possible by means of infrared or ultraviolet lasers.

Anonymous September 6, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Actually, Ivan3man_at_large is correct. A laser could trigger a lightning strike by creating a path of ionized air.

Scott A. Stevenson September 10, 2011 at 1:25 AM

I captured something like this on video: http://d.ro/laserbolt :-)

Scott A. Stevenson September 10, 2011 at 1:25 AM

I captured something like this on video: http://d.ro/laserbolt :-)

Manuel Macedo September 19, 2011 at 1:54 AM

Cool!
what kind of trigger do you use?
Do you know you can use a remote ofr long exposures? check this out:astrus.bymac.org
Works with all major brands os cameras!

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