An astronaut captured a stunning photograph of an extremely rare lightning phenomenon known as a “red sprite” — which is rarely visible from Earth.
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured a photo and footage of the rare electrical discharge high above the Earth using a very powerful camera as part of the Thor-Davis experiment at Danish Technical University (DTU).
Beyond the clouds is a fascinating world.
What you see here is a picture of a red sprite over a thunder cloud that I took as part of the Thor-Davis experiment from @DTUSpace ⚡Red sprites are part of the rare phenomena known as Transient Luminous Events, often shortened TLEs,… pic.twitter.com/AA4h8anUIf
— Andreas Mogensen (@Astro_Andreas) November 24, 2023
The experiment is studying lightning in the upper atmosphere and the impact this can have on greenhouse gas levels, which contribute to global warming.
A Camera That Takes 100,000 Photos Per Second
As part of the Thor-Davis experiment, Mogensen heads to the International Space Station’s (ISS) Cupola observatory module every Saturday to attempt to photograph storms from Earth.
The ISS orbits Earth at a height of around 250 miles, meaning the space station makes around 16 trips around Earth every single day.
Last week, Mogensen grabbed the space station’s “Davis camera” as he spotted a thunderstorm brewing over Earth. The astronaut managed to capture a photograph and footage of a red sprite over a thunder cloud.
“Red sprites are part of the rare phenomena known as Transient Luminous Events, often shortened TLEs, that can appear over thunder clouds,” Mogensen writes on X (formerly known as Twitter).
“The red sprites form around 40 to 80 km [25 – 50 miles] above ground and as you can see in the video from the Davis camera, the red sprites appear after the thunder has struck and much higher up.
“The Davis camera is special in that it does not take a picture like a regular camera, but like the retina in our eyes that is sensitive to changes in light, allowing it to take up to the equivalent of 100,000 pictures per second.”
Scientists estimate the size of the red sprite in the photograph shot by Mogensen is roughly 8.7 by 16.2 miles (14 by 26km) in size.
Rarely Seen From Earth
A red sprite — which is also sometimes referred to as red lighting — is an example of a remarkable weather event known as a Transient Luminous Event (TLE).
Lightning flashes normally go downward from the clouds to the ground. However, a red sprite goes in the other direction, going into the atmosphere, a bit like backwards lightning.
Because red sprits form above thunder clouds, they’re not easily studied from the ground, and are mostly seen from space.
Image credits: All photos via European Space Agency (ESA)