Have you ever seen a sprite? Some say it's impossible.


The strange and fleeting forms of red lightning materialize above thunderheads, usually disappearing again in less time than it takes to blink. Yet storm chaser Michael Gavan had no trouble seeing these on May 23rd:

“Extremely bright ‘jellyfish’ sprites were easily visible naked-eye through evening twilight!” says Gavin. “This is a framegrab of the brightest one I managed to capture with my astrophotography-modified Canon T3i.”

Gavin saw the display from northwestern Kansas. “Clear skies afforded fantastic views of an MCS (Mesoscale convective system) moving through the Nebraska panhandle almost 100 miles away,” he says. “I wasn’t the only one who saw them. Reports were coming in that people were seeing sprites from Interstate 70 as well.”

The storm lasted so long, Gavin had time to attach an 85mm lens to his camera for some close-up shots. “Because I had an image of the same area without a sprite from a few seconds earlier, I was able to subtract the sky (stars, airglow, etc) to make a ‘difference image’ of the sprite structure without any distractions.” This is the result:

“There are some very interesting fine-scale features in jellyfish sprites!” he says.

Solar Minimum could be boosting sprites. During the low phase of the solar cycle–happening now–cosmic rays from deep space flood into the inner solar system relatively unimpeded by the sun’s weakening magnetic field. Some models hold that cosmic rays help sprites get started by creating conductive paths in the atmosphere.


David Aragorn

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