Elusive Red Sprite Seen From the Space Station

NASA photo ISS044-E-45576 showing storms over southern Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015. (NASA/JSC)
NASA photo ISS044-E-45576 showing storms over southern Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015. (NASA/JSC)

Let’s take a look back at our own planet for a moment with this stunning photo captured from the Space Station. This shot, taken on the night of Aug. 10, 2015, shows lightning flashes in thunderstorms over southern Mexico. Along the right edge bright red and purple streamers can be seen extending high into the atmosphere above a particularly powerful flash: a full-on “red sprite” caught on camera!

So-called because of their elusive nature, sprites typically appear as several clusters of red tendrils reaching upwards from the region of a lighting flash, extending as high as 55 miles (90 km) into the atmosphere. The brightest region of a sprite is usually around altitudes of 40-45 miles (65-75 km). They don’t last very long, 3-10 milliseconds at most, and so to catch one on camera is a real feat (or a great surprise!)

Detail of the sprite photographed over Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015 (NASA/JSC)
Detail of the sprite photographed over Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015 (NASA/JSC)

Sprites have been photographed from the ISS before (it’s a great place from which to observe these phenomena, which are often obscured by the storm clouds they occur above) but this is one of the best images I’ve seen yet.

And in case you’re wondering, that’s the Moon (not the Sun) lighting the star-filled sky, and the yellow-green light surrounding the planet isn’t the aurora – it’s airglow. A corner of an ISS solar array can be seen at the upper right too.

Read more about red sprites in an article I wrote for Discovery news here, and if you are really interested in them be sure to check out the PBS NOVA special “At the Edge of Space,” which highlights some of the best research done on sprites.

(The original image source can be found here. A sprightly tip of the hat to Epic Cosmos on Twitter.)

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18 Comments

  1. Jason:
    The NASA MSFC Mesoscale Lightning Experiment captured the the first observations of the Sprite phenomena from Space using the Space Shuttle using the monochrome TV cameras in 1989. Those observations led to others using color TV cameras and higher resolution cameras to get what we are seeing today.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    its trump imigration plans

    Like

  3. sdfff says:

    cthulu has risen

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  4. wilkoklak says:

    I remember seeing a red lightning bolt when I was a little child. Maybe it was a dream or maybe I’ve seen this red sprite ^^

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  5. Wonderful photos, what an incredible insight into the unknown!

    Like

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