NASA seeing sprites (w/ Video)

NASA seeing sprites
A sprite glows red (inset) in this image captured by astronauts on the International Space Station on April 30, 2012. Credit: Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center

High above the clouds during thunderstorms, some 50 miles above Earth a different kind of lightning dances. Bursts of red and blue light, known as "sprites," flash for a scant one thousandth of a second. They are often only visible to those in flight above a storm, and happen so quickly you might not even see it unless you chance to be looking directly at it. One hard-to-reach place that gets a good view of sprites is the International Space Station. On April 30, 2012, astronauts on the ISS captured the signature red flash of a sprite, offering the world and researchers a rare opportunity to observe one.

Indeed, sprites are so hard to catch on film, that pilots had claimed to see them for almost a century before scientists at the University of Minnesota accidentally caught one on camera in July of 1989. Since then, researchers aboard have occasionally snapped a shot, but it continues to be difficult to methodically film them. So a group of scientists, along with help from 's NHK television, sought them out regularly for two weeks in the summer of 2011.

Filming at 10,000 frames per second on two separate jets, the team recorded some of the best movies of sprites ever taken – movies that can be used to study this poorly understood phenomenon and the forces that create them. By filming from two flying 12 miles apart, the team mapped out the 3-dimensional nature of the sprites. Ground-based measurements rounded out the picture.

Filmed at 10,000 frames per second by Japan's NHK television, movies like this of electromagnetic bursts called "sprites" will help scientists better understand how weather high in the atmosphere relates to weather on the ground. Credit: NHK

"Seeing these are spectacular," says Hans C. Stenbaek-Nielsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska. "But we need the movies, because not only are they so fast that you could blink and miss them, but they emit most of their light in red, where the human eye is relatively blind."

During those two weeks, the scientists hopped into their planes in Denver, Colo. each evening and chased storm clouds. Just figuring out which direction to fly next was a full time job, assigned to a single person with a computer watching the weather systems. Once a plane found a hot zone of sprites, however, they often lucked into filming numerous sprites in a row. The sprite's first flash is usually followed by a break up into numerous streamers of light – figuring out what causes this divergence is one of the key things researchers will try to understand from these films.

The basic understanding of sprites is that they are related to lightning, in which a neutrally charged cloud discharges some of the electricity to ground. Normally negative charge is carried from the cloud to the ground, but about one out of every ten times it's positive charge -- and that leaves the top of the cloud negatively charged. With this one in ten chance, the electric field above the cloud is "just right" to produce the sprite, an electrical discharge 50 miles above the thunderstorm.

Typically the weather we experience on the ground is considered to be a separate phenomenon from the weather that goes on higher up in the atmosphere, in the area known as the mesosphere. The show, however, that some fundamental science connects these two regions, opening interesting physics questions about the interchange of energy between them.

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Physicists explain thunderstorm 'sprites'

Citation: NASA seeing sprites (w/ Video) (2012, August 14) retrieved 17 October 2019 from
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Aug 14, 2012
So the article mentions that sprites are related to lightning by "some fundamental science".

If the physics of energy exchange between the two phenomenon are as "poorly understood" as they make it to be, how can we be so sure that the electric discharge from lightning is what causes the spites, and not the inverse?

"What is in itself?
What is its nature?"
-Marcus Aurelius

Aug 14, 2012
how can we be so sure that the electric discharge from lightning

Because the ground based instruments record electrical discharges (like lightning bolts) - and the sprites show up on these instruments just like other electrical discharges.

Aug 14, 2012
Infinion, the "some fundamental science" is circuit theory. Anyone who knows about electricity knows that it must flow in a complete circuit. The reason the sprites occur above thunderstorms is because that is how the electrical energy is supplied to the storms from the ionosphere and ultimately the Sun. The Earth receives a steady flow of electricity from the Sun in the form of the solar wind and CME's, this electric current is what drives weather and climate patterns on this planet.

"From the smallest particle to the largest galactic formation, a web of electrical circuitry connects and unifies all of nature, organizing galaxies, energizing stars, giving birth to planets and, on our own world, controlling weather and animating biological organisms. There are no isolated islands in an electric universe."

- David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill, Thunderbolts of the Gods.

Aug 14, 2012
Don't forget this key detail, from

"When lightning makes your favorite AM radio station crackle and pop, it is also cleaning up a radiation hazard overhead. Lightning in clouds only a few miles above the ground clears a safe zone in the radiation belts thousands of miles above the Earth, according to new NASA research ..."

I suspect that this notion that the incredible power of lightning is caused by the rubbing together of ice particles in clouds will make us the butt of jokes amongst future generations. Just wait until people realize what Gerrit Verschuur has been seeing for decades now with the interstellar "clouds". That's when things will get truly interesting.

The sprites show us quite clearly that one will only find what they are looking for. My paradigm changed about five years ago, but it seems to be a function of how much people have invested in the current theories.

Aug 14, 2012
sprites are the spirit of the character in the movie 'powder'. yes, they are.

Aug 15, 2012
this electric current is what drives weather and climate patterns on this planet

Not even close. Variation in solar insulation, difference in temperatures between regions and heat transfer drives Earth's climate and weather. Electric currents have very little, if any effect on the climate.

Aug 15, 2012
Re: "Electric currents have very little, if any effect on the climate."

Yes, this is the textbook theory. The question does not pertain to whether or not we can all reproduce it on an exam, but rather: Is it right?

It appears that we're not even taking sufficiently detailed measurements of the Earth's E-fields to get an accurate assessment of electric joule heating's effect upon the Earth's climate, so it might be premature to draw conclusions at this point. See the paper at


... which starts with ...

"It is important to understand Joule heating because it can significantly change the temperature structure, atmosphere composition and electron density, and hence, influences satellite drag. It is thought that many coupled ionosphere-thermosphere models underestimate Joule heating because the spatial and temporal variability of the ionospheric electric field is not totally captured within global models ..."

Aug 15, 2012
Almost forgot this as well ...


"Weather on Earth has a surprising connection to space weather occurring high in the electrically-charged upper atmosphere, known as the ionosphere, according to new results from NASA satellites ... Researchers discovered that tides of air generated by intense thunderstorm activity over South America, Africa and Southeast Asia were altering the structure of the ionosphere ... Using pictures from IMAGE, the team discovered four pairs of bright regions where the ionosphere was almost twice as dense as the average. Three of the bright pairs were located over tropical rainforests with lots of thunderstorm activity."

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