When we first checked in with graduate student and astrophotographer Jason Ahrns earlier this month, he had the chance to be part of an observing campaign to try and photograph red sprite lightning from the air. Using a special airplane from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Aircraft Facility in Boulder, Colorado, Jason was part of a team that used high-speed video cameras and digital still cameras to learn more about this mysterious lightning. They flew over the central part of the US, such as over Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
Named for the mythological sprites, which were known for being elusive, this lightning flashes quickly at high altitudes of 65-75 km (40-45 miles), but often as high as 90 km (55 miles) into the atmosphere. They are difficult to see from the ground, thus this airborne observing campaign.
Here are more images and video (some at 10,000 frames per second!) taken by Jason and his team:
Jason said on his blog, documenting the observing campaign, that “Most of what we saw were C-sprites, short for ‘Column sprites’ or ‘Columnar sprites’ – it just refers to their shape as tall, single columns.”
Sprites appear as luminous reddish-orange flashes, and sometimes look like jellyfish with “legs” that reach down into the clouds. Besides the columnar shapes, they also can be shaped like carrots and crowns, but why they take different shapes is unknown. They are thought to be triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground. They were discovered by accident in 1989 when a researcher studying stars was calibrating a camera pointed at the distant atmosphere where sprites occur.
Above is an image, and below is the video of the same sprite slowed down by about 500 times:
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.
“Holy crap, this is the rarest scene I’ve ever captured and likely ever will,” said photographer Mike Hollingshead. “I was standing there just watching when bam, big red sprites ‘squirting’ up into the air in the aurora.”
Mike said was hoping to see the aurora the night of May 31, 2013, and felt lucky when he saw a faint yellow glow begin to rise in the skies. At the same time, a thunderstorm could be seen off on the horizon and almost before he could even ponder the possibility of seeing something unusual, sprites started appearing.
“Sprites were first imaged in 1989 accidentally and first color photograph in 1994,” wrote Mike on his Extreme Instability website. “Recent. But with auroras, evidently it is possible the very first time was a couple freaking weeks before this one of mine. It’s that crazy rare.”
Sprites are huge electrical discharges that occur high above thunderstorm clouds. They are rare, but at least one has been captured on film from the International Space Station. They are triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground. They often occur in clusters within the altitude range 50–90 km above the Earth’s surface.
Stunning! Thanks to Mike Hollingshead for sharing his amazing photos, and congratulations on capturing such a rare event!
Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.