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Researchers Catch Elusive Phenomenon Known as 'Sprites' on Camera

Aug 14, 2013 10:09 AM EDT

The elusive phenomenon known as sprites was recently caught on camera by scientist Jason Ahrns while aboard the National Center for Atmospheric Research's Gulfstream V research aircraft.

Posting the images to his blog, Ahrns explains in enthusiastic detail regarding the painstaking efforts that went into capturing the bursts of light on camera -- a feat rarely done.

With lifespans of just milliseconds, sprites appear as red streaks of light and can only be observed when viewing lightning from above. And while sprites can stretch vertically for as much as 45 miles and another tens of miles horizontally, they went seldom observed and often, as in the case of high-flying pilots during WWII, unremarked upon even when they were due to their overwhelmingly mysterious nature, according to the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

Not until 1989 when scientists at the University of Minnesota accidentally caught one on camera did the world of science begin to pay attention.

Since then, researchers like Ahrns have, from time to time, caught images of the fleeting yet massive events, though exactly what they are still remains somewhat unclear.

According to NASA, "The basic understanding of sprites is that they are related to lightning, in which a neutrally charged cloud discharges some of the electricity to ground."

And while in most cases a negative charge is carried from the cloud to the ground, roughly once out of every 10 times it's a positive charge, leaving the top of the cloud negatively charged as a result. When this happens, the electric field above the cloud is "just right" for producing sprites.

"Typically the weather we experience on the ground is considered to be a separate phenomenon from the weather that goes on higher up in the atmosphere, in the area known as the mesosphere," the NASA report explains. "The sprites show, however, that some fundamental science connects these two regions, opening interesting physics questions about the interchange of energy between them."

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