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Watch Red Fireworks at the Edge of Space

This photograph captures the salmon-red colors of an elusive electrical burst shooting up from a storm cloud reaching almost into space. Credit: Thomas Ashcraft
A salmon-red electrical burst called a sprite shoots up from a storm cloud, reaching almost into space. Courtesy of Thomas Ashcraft, www.heliotown.com

More than your typical celebratory fireworks will fill the sky this holiday weekend in the United States.

For the past week, sky-watchers have been reporting and capturing on camera mysterious reddish-orange flashes of light high in the night skies, dubbed “sprites.”

Considered a myth until an airline pilot captured their flickering lights above a thunderstorm on film in 1989, these momentary bursts of electricity  can literally reach the edge of space, about 50 miles (81 kilometers) above the ground.

They have remained so elusive because normally clouds obscure sight of them. Sprites are related to lightning. This rare, bizarre phenomena is produced when discharged electricity shoots out from the top of a cloud, instead of heading to the ground as lightning.

You have the best chances of seeing sprites throughout the Midwest from Colorado to Minnesota, and as far south as Texas. Around the world, sprites have been seen in storms above South America, Africa, and Australia. 

Here are some observing tips: To see them with the naked eye during a storm, find a sheltered location far away from the blinding lights of the city. Haze and air pollution can also block sprites from view.  

Gaze well above the top of a thundercloud while blocking out all the lightning action below with a piece of cardboard. Expect them to occur every ten minutes or so on average at the height of the storm.

 

Double appearance of sprites during a thunderstorm. Credit: Thomas Ashcraft
Double appearance of sprites during a thunderstorm. Courtesy of Thomas Ashcraft, www.heliotown.com

How to capture these luminous electrical bursts on camera?

Thomas Ashcraft has been fortunate enough to grab some eerily beautiful portraits of sprites in action, and he has come up with a recipe for success:

As a first step, check the Internet weather services for strong thunderstorms within 500 miles (805 kilometers) of your location using regional radar maps, he recommends.

“I aim my cameras out over the direction of the thunderstorms—which will be hot red or purple on the radar maps—and shoot continuous DSLR exposures,” he said.

“I usually shoot continuous two-second exposures, but if there is no moon then I will shoot up to four-second exposures. It might take hundreds to usually thousands of exposures [to capture one sprite], so be prepared for many shutter clicks.”

Happy hunting.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

Comments

  1. Richard
    London
    September 18, 10:35 am

    I first saw this on BBC TV’s Tomorrow’s Wolrd in the late 80s when they showed footage the Royal Swedish Air Force had taken. They said the ‘sprites’ travelled at around 1/4 the speed of light.

    From the moment I saw them I pretty much knew what they are and how they are formed. If someone from an academic background wishes to know, please contact me.

  2. Dan
    St. Paul, MN
    July 7, 7:00 pm

    I wonder if this is the source of the “heat lightening” we occasionally see here in the mid west. My mother pointed it out to us when we were kids.

  3. Emilio Bruno
    Kamloops BC Canada
    July 3, 7:06 pm

    I think your definition of how these are caused needs to be clarified. Dutch researchers came to the conclusion that positive lightning strikes are tied directly to sprites.
    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprite_(lightning)

  4. davit agassi
    July 3, 1:45 pm

    VERY GOOD!

  5. Dwayne LaGrou
    Lapeer, Michigan
    July 2, 9:15 pm

    The people aboard the International Space Station have also taken many photos of this strange form of lightning, Only from the other end of them. If you Google it you can find many of their pix. Stunningly Beautifuf and Eerily Mezmorizing!!!
    They were also mentioned way back in the Apollo era but many of the Astronauts were reluctant to report them for fear of being criticized by their superiors. It’s a shame they put in that situation because we lost out on being able to share it with them. At least now they can.
    Wonderful pictures. We are expecting some storms in our area in t he next few days. Maybe we will get lucky.

    Thanks National Geographic for such interesting articles!!!

  6. Daniel
    Patagonia
    July 2, 5:42 pm

    Es tan difícil poner un traductor? =/

  7. Susana Lalonde
    laguna mountain ca.
    July 2, 5:20 pm

    This pass weeknd y husband & I witness the esplendor of God’s creation, we saw million of stars, just like you said wonderful day to be alive, thank you for the info.

  8. Nicolas Meriaud
    Montreal
    July 2, 5:12 pm

    This phenomena has also been described in “traqueur d’orages” by Alex Hermant, where it has been called “blue jet”. It is also related to thunder (supercell), and appears as a flash of light going over the clouds, and maybe over the troposphere. Very interesting phenomena.

  9. Jack Fusco
    United States
    July 2, 3:52 pm

    I’ve always been interested in these and the limited number of photos available of them. Great article, Andrew!