What are Sprites?

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To say that there are parts of space that have remained unexplored is an understatement of epic proportion. Space is huge, and there are many bits of it that remain unexplored and unexplained by modern science. One such mystery is that of sprites, mystical whips of light that were simply considered by many to be figments of pilot’s imaginations for many years.

In 1989 sprites were finally captured with images and, more recently, with videos. Sprites are red streaks of light that appear in very quick bursts that can easily be chalked up to a trick of the eye. They typically occur about 50 miles into the atmosphere and have most recently been captured by two Japanese jets doing research in 2011.

Although not much is known about sprites or the factors that create them, scientists do know that sprites are created by neutrally charged cloud discharges. Sprites are related to lightening, where negative charges are carried from the cloud to the ground in a burst of light. Sprites occur when positive charge is released by the cloud towards the ground, and the remaining cloud is left negatively charged which produces the red flash of light.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured this view of a red sprite above the white light of an active thunderstorm high above Missouri or Illinois. Image: NASA, August 10, 2015.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured this view of a red sprite above the white light of an active thunderstorm high above Missouri or Illinois. Image: NASA, August 10, 2015.

Sprites are rarely seen from the ground as they are blocked by the cloud layer. Additionally, the release of charges is so quick that most people wouldn’t be able to catch them with their eyes. However, red sprites can be as big as 19 miles long, extending into the ionosphere, which makes them visible from the International Space Station and for airplane cruising at high altitudes.

This second red sprite was captured over the coast of El Salvador almost three minutes later. Image: NASA, August 2015.

This second red sprite was captured over the coast of El Salvador almost three minutes later. Image: NASA, August 2015.

The International Space Station had a few sprite sightings over the southern United States and Mexico as they flew over a couple major thunderstorms. Sprites usually occur over thunderstorms because of the varying electrical charges that occur in the clouds. While the negative charge going towards the ground creates lightning, positive upward charges can occasionally create sprites.

MoreRed Sprites Above the U.S. and Central America – August 26, 2015.  NASA Earth Observatory