Physicists explain thunderstorm 'sprites'

June 20, 2007

U.S. physicists have determined "sprites" -- bright bursts of light seen in thunderstorms -- travel at 1-10th the speed of light.

But the brief explosions are so fleeting, scientists still don't know much about how they work, National Geographic News reported.

In the study conducted at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, scientists recorded sprites using ultra high-speed digital cameras at 10,000 frames per second.

"We realized that all these branches and long luminous features that we saw in the sprites, that they didn't really exist," lead author Hans Niel told NGN. "It's sort of like you take a time exposure on a highway, and then all the tail lights of the cars make long streaks in the image."

Study co-author David Sentman told NGN sprites are believed produced when lightning bolts create an electrical field above a storm that accelerates electrons in the middle atmosphere to collide with gas molecules and glow.

Sprites were predicted by Nobel laureate physicist C.T.R. Wilson in 1925. Their existence was confirmed in 1989 by University of Minnesota physicist John Winkler who caught them on videotape.

Sentman called them "sprites" shortly afterward and the name stuck.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International

Related Stories

Recommended for you

For faster battery charging, try a quantum battery?

August 3, 2015

(Phys.org)—Physicists have shown that a quantum battery—basically, a quantum system such as a qubit that stores energy in its quantum states—can theoretically be charged at a faster rate than conventional batteries. ...

Magnetism at nanoscale

August 3, 2015

As the demand grows for ever smaller, smarter electronics, so does the demand for understanding materials' behavior at ever smaller scales. Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory are building a unique ...

Study calculates the speed of ice formation

August 3, 2015

Researchers at Princeton University have for the first time directly calculated the rate at which water crystallizes into ice in a realistic computer model of water molecules. The simulations, which were carried out on supercomputers, ...

Small tilt in magnets makes them viable memory chips

August 3, 2015

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have discovered a new way to switch the polarization of nanomagnets, paving the way for high-density storage to move from hard disks onto integrated circuits.

Scientists bring order, and color, to microparticles

August 3, 2015

A team of New York University scientists has developed a technique that prompts microparticles to form ordered structures in a variety of materials. The advance, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.