Hunting mystery lightning from space

Posted: April 7, 2018 by oldbrew in atmosphere, research, solar system dynamics, weather

Sprites, elves and jets [image credit: NOAA / BBC]

While speculation about theoretical dark matter and big bangs may be more popular, there’s plenty still to learn about these observed near-Earth electrical phenomena.

A new mission aboard the International Space Station is taking storm chasing to new heights, reports BBC News.

Thunderstorms are some of the most spectacular events in nature, yet what we can see from the surface of our planet is only the beginning.

There are bizarre goings on in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and a new mission aims to learn more about them.

Launched to the International Space Station on Monday, the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) will observe the strange electrical phenomena that occur above thunderstorms.

Sky lab

Orbiting at an altitude of just over 400km, the ISS provides the perfect view of Earth’s turbulent weather systems.

ASIM will be deployed aboard the station later this month.

The electrifying effects of storms are frequently observed from the space station. Yet when lightning strikes downward, something very different is happening above the cloud tops.

Known as Transient Luminous Events (TLEs), these unusual features were first spotted by accident in 1989.

Minnesota professor John R Winckler was testing a television camera in advance of an upcoming rocket launch, when he realised that two frames showed bright columns of light above a distant storm cloud.

The discovery came as a shock to scientists at the time, according to Dr Torsten Neubert, ASIM’s lead scientist.

“That really surprised all of us. How come this exists and we didn’t know it? Airline pilots must have known about it – there are some anecdotal descriptions,” the Technical University of Denmark physicist said.

For the better part of a century before TLEs were caught on camera, people who spotted them had been reporting “rocket lightning” or “upward lightning”.

Now in need of names, the phenomena were christened sprites and elves because of their fleeting, mysterious nature.

Yet despite their diminutive monikers, these features are anything but small, and extend tens of kilometres into the atmosphere.

Sprites, elves and jets

So, what’s causing these events?

“They are slightly different to lightning,” Dr Neubert told BBC News. “It’s a pulse of the electric field that travels up. For the sprite – when the atmosphere gets thin, the field can get a discharge.”

Sprites appear milliseconds after a powerful cloud-to-ground lightning strike.

Elves, on the other hand, are caused by the electromagnetic pulse the strike produces. A brief, aurora-like expanding halo in the ionosphere, they occur too quickly to be spotted by the human eye and last less than a millisecond.

Although they are more elusive, “elves are incredibly well understood,” says Dr Martin Fullekrug from the University of Bath. They are the most common TLE, thought to occur twice as often as sprites.

Blue jets – upward electrical discharges from cloud tops – are the least well known.

“The jets are not very well studied because they’re very faint. They’re mainly blue. Also they’re not necessarily associated with lightning. They pop up now and again and they’re very mysterious,” Dr Fullekrug added.

While elves are mainly spotted over warm ocean waters, sprites tend to occur over land.

Continued here.

  1. Bloke down the pub says:

    Is the amount of energy being transferred upwards significant in the scheme of things?

  2. Saighdear says:

    Hmm, interesting graphic there. ROYGBIV and all that stuff : Energy levels and doppler effects / lightshift etc etc. so If I have it the right way around, would the Blue Jets be causing the Rebound in the RED Sprites ? and the Green shade would be as we tend to see in Aurora ……. That’s what Lunchtime Glucose does !

  3. JB says:

    Sprites, and Elves. But where are the Pixies?

    Study of these phenomena will likely lead to understanding QSOs.

  4. p.g.sharrow says:

    Lightning does not strike from the clouds down!

    It is a cascade failure of the dielectric of the atmosphere from ground (negative charge) to the positive region. Much as in a dry sand pile at the angle of repose. Pull a bit of sand from the bottom and watch the cascade move from the bottom to the top. After the air becomes plasma, by the starting current, the return spike in flow is from positive to ground and then back up until the charges are equalized and the dielectric strength exceeds the potential difference.

    This is a spark gaped oscillator. Energy in motion tends to stay in motion. Just like Mater.

    Current in motion creates EMF fields that are like perfect elastic springs that must recoil and deliver up their energy in a return current flow.

  5. Jim says:

    Agreed with p.g. but, should this have been a suprize to an engineer? But, a scientist should be, they discount what everyone knows to propose something in their name. So what did they discover here. Lightning is part of an circuit?, Gee, sometimes it goes “up”, to a higher level? Another part of the circuit, okay. So they have been describing the circuit wrongly all these years. Something unsettled in science? NEVER.

  6. oldbrew says:

    Once upon a time in a thunderstorm
    April 13, 2018 by Melissa Gaskill, NASA

    Sprites are flashes caused by electrical breakdown in the mesosphere. Blue jets are lightning discharges reaching upwards through the stratosphere, and elves are concentric rings of emissions caused by an electromagnetic pulse at the ionosphere’s bottom edge. Giants are large discharges that create an electrical breakdown of the atmosphere from the top of thunderstorms to the bottom ionosphere. Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes are a flash phenomenon generated at the top of thunderstorms. Evidence suggests that run-away electron discharge causes some of these phenomena.

    Read more at:

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