This photo shows two impressive light phenomena at the same time – BGR


  • The lightning we see here on the surface is just one type of storm phenomenon, and others occur in places that we cannot see from the ground.
  • Lightning also produces incredible views in space above the clouds, spreading into the atmosphere in colors we never see from cloud-to-ground lightning.
  • A new image captured by NOIRLab researchers gives us an incredible glimpse of two rarely seen lightning features unfolding at the exact same time.

We are all familiar with what happens when a thunderstorm passes through our forest. We have rain, wind, thunder and, of course, lightning. Seeing a lightning bolt from cloud to ground can be a truly spectacular experience, as long as you are not in the immediate vicinity, but those energy bolts are only part of the lightning story. The rest takes place above the clouds, and it could be argued that the little-seen screens that are hidden from our view on the ground are actually even more impressive.

In a new image published by NOIRLab, we are treated not one, but two phenomena frozen in time. The image was captured near Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii that is home to multiple high-powered telescopes. What we see in the photo is a lightning bolt directing its power skyward in the form of features known as red sprites and blue jets. You can clearly see how they earned their names.

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The photo almost looks fake, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking it is. We never get to see lightning like this, and seeing it from a place on Earth rather than from on high is especially rare. The differences between jets and sprites have a lot to do with their location in the atmosphere. The red sprites look like flares with flowing tentacles, while the blue jets look like solid bolts of plasma shooting into space.

This graphic from the European Space Agency does a great job of showing the difference between the two phenomena, but because they are both the product of a beam shot upward, they are still closely related.

NOIRLab offers additional context:

Red sprites and blue jets are distinguished by their colors and also by the direction they hit. As you can see in this image, the red and blue lights are shooting from the top of the cloud deck and heading into space, rather than toward Earth. It is extremely rare to capture these phenomena on camera and even more so from this unique perspective.

The photo was captured by ground-based cameras called “Cloud Cams” found near the Gemini North telescope. The telescopes located there look deep into space, but this photo is a great reminder that some pretty incredible things are happening here at home.

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Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering the latest news and trends in virtual reality, wearable devices, smartphones, and future technology. Most recently, Mike served as a technology editor at The Daily Dot and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and many other print and web media. His love of reporting is second only to his addiction to games.

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