Monday, May 18, 2015

The Season Of The Sprites

Sprites                                                         Lomonosov Moscow State University
With more and more thunderstorms rumbling across the country it's time to mention that we have entered the season of the sprites.  A sprite is a member of a family of upper atmosphere lightning phenomena called transient luminous events or TLE's. Other members of the TLE family include blue jets and elves. They are associated with thunderstorms and although observed earlier were unknown to science a little more than a generation ago.  Digital photography and advanced computer technology enabled both their imaging and analysis beginning around 1995. 

Centre Nationales D'Etudes Spatiales 
I find these atmospheric events fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious but the probability of observing them in real time is practically nil. For certain I won't be seeing anything from my woodland home in Georgia or the eastern U.S. for that matter. When you find yourself in a thunderstorm-rich location with unlimited visibility beyond the horizon you have found the ideal conditions for LTE observation. In other words, our readers in Oklahoma and Texas need only step out on the porch and into a comfortable chair to enjoy the possibility of seeing a rare and still mysterious show in the distant sky.

Often scientists pursue LTE research from the air. The rarified atmosphere and proximity to the events make for some spectacular detailed imagery. Below is a video of one such trip documented in At the Edge of Space, a 2014 episode in the Public Broadcasting Service's NOVA series. The action begins at 3:55 followed by historic high-speed photography at 6:45. 

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