A sprightly explanation for UFO sightings?

Feb 23, 2009
The appearance of a "sprite" (about 30 miles high by 30 miles wide), flashing above a distant thunderstorm. The "sprite" is about 175-250 miles away from the camera. Credit: ILAN Science Team

In legend, sprites are trolls, elves and other spirits that dance high above our ozone layer. But scientists at Tel Aviv University have discovered that some very real "sprites" are zipping across the atmosphere as well, providing a possible explanation for those other legendary denizens of the skies, UFOs.

Thunderstorms, says Prof. Colin Price, head of the Geophysics and Planetary Sciences Department at Tel Aviv University, are the catalyst for a newly discovered natural phenomenon he calls "sprites." He and his colleagues are one of the leading teams in the world studying the phenomenon, and Prof. Price leads the study of "winter sprites" ― those that appear only in the northern hemisphere's winter months.

"Sprites appear above most thunderstorms," explains Prof. Price, "but we didn't see them until recently. They are high in the sky and last for only a fraction of a second." While there is much debate over the cause or function of these mysterious flashes in the sky, they may, Prof. Price says, explain some bizarre reports of UFO sightings.

An Electrifying Discovery

Sprites are described as flashes high in the atmosphere, between 35 and 80 miles from the ground, much higher than the 7 to 10 miles where regular lightning bolts usually occur.

"Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite," explains Prof. Price. "We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft."

Though sprites have existed 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, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own, and are cousins to similar natural phenomenon dubbed by atmospheric electricians as 'elves,' 'goblins' and 'trolls,'" Prof. Price says. These flashes are so named because they appear to "dance" in the sky, which may explain some UFO sightings.

Candles on a Celestial Birthday Cake

Tel Aviv University's research team is one of the leading global groups studying the phenomenon. But Prof. Price and his students are now working in collaboration with other Israeli scientists from The Open University and The Hebrew University to take three-dimensional pictures of sprites to gain a better understanding of their structure. Using remote-controlled roof-mounted cameras, the researchers are able to look at the thunderstorms that produce sprites when they are still over the Mediterranean Sea.

From their unique vantage point in Israel, the researchers are leading the world in the study of winter sprites. Prof. Price's new camera techniques, in particular, have revealed the sprites' circular structures, which are much like those of candles on a birthday cake. Using triangulation, Prof. Price and his team have also been able to calculate the dimensions of the sprites' features. "The candles in the sprites are up to 15 miles high, with the cluster of candles 45 miles wide -- it looks like a huge birthday celebration!"

Because of their high altitude, sprites may also have an impact on the chemistry of the Earth's ozone layer. "Since they are relatively infrequent, the global impact is likely small," says Prof. Price. "But we're researching that now."

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Explore further: TRMM Satellite calculates Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo rainfall

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA Webb's heart survives deep freeze test

5 hours ago

After 116 days of being subjected to extremely frigid temperatures like that in space, the heart of the James Webb Space Telescope, the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) and its sensitive instruments, ...

Recommended for you

Tropical Depression 9 forms in Gulf of Mexico

16 hours ago

Tropical Depression Nine formed over the western Bay of Campeche, Gulf of Mexico and is forecast to make a quick landfall on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. NOAA's GOES-East Satellite captured the birth of the ...

$58 million effort to study potential new energy source

21 hours ago

A research team led by The University of Texas at Austin has been awarded approximately $58 million to analyze deposits of frozen methane under the Gulf of Mexico that hold enormous potential to increase ...

And now, the volcano forecast

22 hours ago

Scientists are using volcanic gases to understand how volcanoes work, and as the basis of a hazard-warning forecast system.

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tangent2
3.7 / 5 (10) Feb 23, 2009
"Sprites are described as flashes high in the atmosphere, between 35 and 80 miles from the ground, much higher than the 7 to 10 miles where regular lightning bolts usually occur."

So how exactly could this be a possible UFO sighting explanation if these 'sprite' events are happening so high up above the cloud cover? These 'sprites' would not be visible from ground level. Also, these 'sprites' have been known about for quite a few years now and have since not offered very good evidence of a plausible explanation for UFO sightings.

"Sprites, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own..."

How many UFO sighting photographs/witness accounts have you seen/heard about that occur in thunderstorms and are actually taken seriously? There is a reason for this.

The reference this article makes in regards to a possible UFO sightings explanation is unfounded and simply ridiculous.
earls
4 / 5 (8) Feb 23, 2009
Not to mention these are quick brilliant flashes, not a group of "stationary hovering lights" as is usually reported.
Bob_B
3.7 / 5 (6) Feb 23, 2009
I have seen a UFO, the typical kind reported with lights and changes in direction and speed, also observed by 1000's of other people.

It was not a sprite. Clear weather, great visibility.
Just wish I could get a ride :)
barakn
3.6 / 5 (5) Feb 23, 2009
Considering the curvature of the Earth, sprites from a thunderstorm 500 to 800 miles away would appear right on the horizon and the thunderstorm itself would not be visible. Thus the statements by both Tangent2 and Bob_b implying that sprites can't explain fair-weather UFO sightings are misguided. Earls's "quick brilliant flashes" statement also ignores persistence of vision as might occur with a bright flash occurring in dim lighting. In fact persistence of vision induced by sprites plus eye microsaccades might explain certain reports of UFOs flying at amazing speeds and making quick, "physically impossible," turns. I'm not saying that sprites are the source of all or even most UFO sightings, but the current commenters seem to have ruled out the possibility for less than well-thought-out reasons.
yep
1 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2009
Electric universe has an interesting article on how a sprite might have been responsible for the space shuttle columbia disaster.
http://www.holosc...cc6y424y&keywords=sprites#dest
denijane
2.5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2009
"they are high in the sky and last for only a fraction of a second."
If sprites can last only for fraction of seconds, that clearly says that they cannot be mistaken for UFOs. Because people see the UFOs for longer and sometimes even take a picture of them. I haven't seen UFO and don't make any claims here. But the logic of the article is flawed.