In a stormy Hawaiian sky in July 2017, streaks of red and blue lightning appeared to meet over a bed of white light.
Cameras from the Gemini North Telescope at the Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea took a stunning picture of the multi-colored light show. The National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) released the photo on Wednesday as its “image of the week.”
The lightning bolt in the image “looks so otherworldly that it looks like it must be a special effect,” NOIRLab said. He also published an expandable version.
These colorful lightning phenomena are aptly known as red sprites and blue jets. They are extremely difficult to capture with the camera – flashes last only tenths of a second and can be difficult to see from the ground, as they are generally hidden by storm clouds.
According to Peter Michaud, NOIRLab’s education and engagement manager, astronomers in the vicinity of Hilo use the telescope’s cameras to remotely track bad weather looming near the observatory. The camera system takes a photo of the sky every 30 seconds.
“We have seen some other cases of similar phenomena, but that was the best example of lightning in the upper atmosphere,” he told Insider.
Red white and blue
Regular white lightning bolts differ from sprites and jets in several key ways. While regular lightning bolts shoot through electrically charged air, clouds, and ground during storms, sprites and jets start at different locations in the sky and move into space. Their distinctive tones also set them apart.
Red sprites are ultra-fast bursts of electricity that crackle through the upper regions of the atmosphere, between 37 and 50 miles in the sky, and move into space. Some sprites are jellyfish-shaped, while others, like the one in the Gemini Observatory image, are vertical columns of red light with tendrils snaking downward. These are called carrot sprites.
Stephen Hummel, a dark skies specialist at the McDonald Observatory, captured a spectacular image of jellyfish goblins from a ridge on Mount Locke in Texas last July (below).
“Sprites generally appear to view as gray, faint, very brief structures. You have to be looking for them to spot them, and many times I’m not sure I’ve seen one until I check camera footage to confirm it,” Hummel told Insider. At the time.
Davis Sentman, who worked as a physics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, proposed the name “sprite” for the red-ray phenomenon. He said the term was “well suited to describe her appearance,” as the word evokes the fleeting and fairy-like nature of lightning. Sentman died in 2011.
Meanwhile, the blue jets are born closer to Earth than the red sprites. These cone-shaped electrical discharges are also brighter than sprites and shoot upward from the top of the clouds. The peaks of storm clouds can be between one and 14 miles above the Earth’s surface; the blue jets keep moving skyward until they reach a height of approximately 30 miles, at which point they disappear. These jets move at speeds of over 22,300 mph.
Sprites and jets can be seen from space.
When regular lightning strikes the ground, it tends to release positive electrical energy that needs to be balanced by equal energy and charged oppositely in other parts of the sky. So the sprites and jets are the electrical discharges that balance the equation, that’s why these colorful lightning phenomena happen.
“The more powerful the storm and the more lightning it produces, the more likely it is to produce a sprite,” Hummel said.
Astronauts can sometimes detect sprites and planes from the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth.
European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Morgensen captured the elusive blue jets on video for the first time in color in 2015. He saw the jets while filming a storm over the Bay of Bengal in India. The scientists later used the images as part of a 2017 study.
Morgensen’s observations “are the most spectacular of their kind,” the study authors wrote.