Red sprite captured from the International Space Station

red-sprite-captured-international-space-station

“Red sprites” are short-lived, red flashes that occur about 80 kilometers (50 miles) up in the atmosphere. These electrical discharges can extend 20 to 30 kilometers up into the atmosphere and are connected to thunderstorms and lightning. Red sprites are difficult to observe because they last for just a few milliseconds and occur above thunderstorms. So, usually, they are blocked from view on the ground by the same clouds that produce them. They send pulses of electrical energy up toward the edge of space – the electrically charged layer known as the ionosphere – instead of down to Earth’s surface. They are rich with radio noise, and can sometimes occur in bunches.

For decades, pilots reported seeing ephemeral flashes above storms, but it was not until the 1990s that scientists were able to verify the existence of these electrical discharges. A sprite was first photographed by accident from an airplane in 1989, and observers on the space shuttle captured several more images with low-light cameras in 1990 and in subsequent missions. Viewers on the ground can occasionally photograph sprites by looking out on a thunderstorm in the distance.

Source: Earth Observatory

Astronaut photographs ISS031-E-10711, ISS031-E-10712, and ISS031-E-10713 were acquired on April 30, 2012. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by Michael Carlowicz.

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