Red Sprites and Blue Jets: Electrical Storms in the Upper Atmosphere

This graphic illustrates the atmospheric layers in which red sprites and blue jets occur. Image: Mogenson and ESA, 2015.

This graphic illustrates the altitude and atmospheric layers in which red sprites and blue jets occur. Image: Mogenson and ESA, 2015.

Weather phenomenon around the globe produces some amazing effects.  An astronaut from the European Space Agency recently documented lightening  that occurs above thunderstorms. Known as red sprites and blue jets, these electrical storms shoot lightening up into space towards the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere instead of towards the surface of the Earth.

Not much is known about these types of lightening strikes. Long reported by pilots, the occurrence of these electrical storms was hard to document since they occur above thunderstorms.  ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen (who happens to the first astronaut from Denmark) was tasked during his mission on the International Space Station (ISS) with documenting red sprites and blue jets in order to understand more about them. Studying electrical storms that reach into the stratosphere is an important component for understanding how the Earth’s atmosphere protects us from radiation.

Known by different names, red sprites, blue jets and elves are hard to document, lasting on average less than 20 miliseconds.  Mogenson was able to film blue sprites occurring while observing a thunderstorm over the Bay of Bengal in India from the ISS.

This sequence of frames illustrates the progression of a blue jet lightening strike extended up out of a storm cloud. Source: Chanrion et. al, 2017.

This sequence of frames illustrates the progression of a blue jet lightening strike extended up out of a storm cloud. Source: Chanrion et. al, 2017.

The ISS offers an optimal observation point with its low orbit available at around 400 km altitude.  Most satellites orbit around 800 km in altitude, making them unsuitable for this type of observation.  Ground observations of violent electrical storms are difficult due to the  the atmosphere blocking radiation.  Mogenson was provided with detailed instructions on geographic coordinates of possible storm activity as well as which lens, filter and camera settings to use as part of Thor, a new thundercloud imaging system founded by the Technical University of Denmark.

The results of this portion of the Thor experiment were published recently:

Chanrion, O., Neubert, T., Mogensen, A., Yair, Y., Stendel, M., Singh, R., & Siingh, D. (2017). Profuse activity of blue electrical discharges at the tops of thunderstorms. Geophysical Research Letters.

Watch this short presentation by Mogenson about his experience photographing electrical storms:

Reference

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