Check out this aurora photograph captured last Friday night by photographer Mike Hollingshead. See those small red squiggly lines in the sky? That’s an extremely rare form of lightning called a sprite. This photograph is one of the only times a sprite and an aurora have been captured in the same frame.
A couple of weeks ago, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website featured a sprite/aurora photograph by photographer Walter Lyons, and wrote at the time that Lyons’ image may be the first ever color photo of those two phenomenon together.
This photograph by Hollingshead may very well be the second.
Here’s a crop that offers a closer look at the sprite itself:
Hollingshead tells us it was unlikely that he would see the aurora from his position near Omaha, Nebraska. It was also unlikely that a sky relatively free of storm clouds would produce such a visible sprite. Luckily for Hollingshead, those two unlikely things both happened when he pressed his shutter, resulting in what the photographer considers to be his “Holy Grail” of nighttime photography.
Here are a couple of other photos shot at the same time (they show what Hollingshead was actually going for at the time):
The photograph was captured using a Canon 6D and a Sigma 50mm lens. Settings were f/1.4, ISO 1000, and a 7 second exposure. Hollingshead says he would have exposed the scene longer, but he released the shutter immediately after seeing the sprite flash in the sky 250 miles away from where his camera was.
Sprites are giant electrical discharges that appear high above the clouds of thunderstorms. Although reports of sprites have existed since the 1880s, they weren’t captured on camera until scientists at the University of Minnesota shot this photo in 1989:
Unlike ordinary lightning, sprites occur high above the earth — sometimes 55 miles up, or around 10 times higher than the altitude of commercial jets. In July 2012, we shared a photo of a sprite that was captured by astronauts on the International Space Station. The image shows the crazy altitudes at which sprites occur:
Hollingshead calls his new sprite photo “the rarest scene I’ve ever captured and likely ever will.” You can find a higher-resolution version of the image here.
Image credits: Photographs by Mike Hollingshead and used with permission