Sprites: “At the Edge of Space”
During powerful thunderstorms, red tendrils of light called “sprites” sometimes form — for just a tiny fraction of a second — high in the Earth’s mesosphere. This is the layer of our atmosphere that lies above the stratosphere, where jet airplanes typically fly, but not quite in what we consider “space.” Faint appendages from the main body of a sprite sometimes briefly hang down into the stratosphere. These ghostly, scarlet apparitions are caused by an underlying discharge of intense lightning and form above the top of the thundercloud. Because they’re so ephemeral, they were only first captured on film 24 years ago, in 1989.
More recently, Mike Hollingshead captured a fantastic image of a red sprite while taking photos of the aurora borealis in Omaha, Nebraska, while photographer Jason Ahrns has taken numerous photos of sprites (1, 2) while flying aboard an aircraft. These are just a few beautiful examples.
The PBS program NOVA recently aired At the Edge of Space, an hour-long look at sprites. The show is well worth watching for the stunning visuals alone, but even more for the in-depth look at the work of scientists to uncover the nature of these of this fascinating phenomenon.