(ORDO NEWS) — The tentacle-like red lightning bolts are called sprites. According to the European Space Agency, these are ultra-fast electrical discharges that crash through the upper atmosphere – at an altitude of 60 to 80 kilometers – and travel into space.
This is a rare occurrence: it only lasts tenths of a second and is difficult to see from the ground as it is usually obscured by storm clouds. But Stephen Hummel succeeded in a rare shot of one of those sprites.
Some sprites, like the one Hummel photographed, are shaped like jellyfish. Others are simply vertical columns of red light with tendrils wriggling downward.
The sprites can be huge – the one that Hummel photographed was “about 45 kilometers long and 45 kilometers high,” he said. Some of them are visible over 500 kilometers away.
They arise from the fact that lightning striking the Earth tends to emit positive electrical energy, which must be balanced with equal and oppositely charged energy elsewhere in the sky. So sprites are electrical discharges that balance the equation.
“The stronger the storm and the more lightning it produces, the higher the likelihood of a sprite appearing,” Hummel said.
Although sprites are similar to regular lightning that shoots between electrically charged air, clouds, and earth, sprites occur much further from the surface of the Earth.
Astronauts sometimes spot them from the International Space Station.
Multiple column sprites line up above an angel sprite in my last sprite lightning capture from the night of 4/17/2019 . An uncropped image on the 50mm about 20 minutes before being clouded over. Anadarko, Oklahoma. #okwx #APOD @JimCantore @emilyrsutton @MichaelSeger pic.twitter.com/gXNlPMKucZ
— Paul M Smith (@PaulMSmithPhoto) April 21, 2019
When the sprite flashes, it turns red due to nitrogen, high in the Earth’s atmosphere. The gas is excited by an electrical discharge and emits a red glow.
Photo: Stephen Hummel
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