Article image

"Red sprite" phenomenon captured by space station astronaut

Red sprites, also known as “red fairies” are a type of transient luminous event (TLE), primarily appearing as red flashes of light occurring above thunderstorms. They are part of a larger family of upper-atmospheric phenomena linked to thunderstorm activity, alongside blue jets and elves.

Discovered only in the late 20th century, red sprites have since captivated scientists and sky-watchers alike with their elusive and spectacular nature.

Andreas Mogensen video

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured this image of a red fairy hovering above a thundercloud as a part of the Thor-Davis experiment at Danish Technical University. “Red sprites,” as they are called in scientific circles, are rare Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) that form above thunderclouds. They typically emerge between 40 to 80 kilometers above Earth.

As demonstrated in the Davis camera video, thunder precedes the appearance of red fairies higher in the sky. The Davis camera’s uniqueness lies in its operation. It functions more like our eyes’ retinas, sensitive to light changes, allowing it to capture up to the equivalent of 100,000 frames per second, unlike a standard camera.

Red sprite discovery and background

The existence of red sprites eluded scientific documentation until 1989, largely due to their brief duration and high altitude.

Pilots had reported sightings of unusual aerial phenomena for years. However, these accounts remained anecdotal until researchers, using high-speed cameras, captured the first images of red sprites. This breakthrough paved the way for a new field of atmospheric research.

Red sprites manifest as reddish-orange flashes, often accompanied by tendrils extending both upward and downward. They typically occur in clusters and can stretch 50 to 90 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, into the ionosphere. The coloration is a result of nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere getting excited by the electrical discharge.

Red sprites develop in conjunction with large-scale thunderstorm activity, specifically above the intense electrical discharges of positive cloud-to-ground lightning. They are believed to arise from the imbalance in electrical charge between the upper atmosphere and the thunderclouds below.

Scientific significance and research

The study of red sprites offers valuable insights into atmospheric electricity and upper-atmosphere conditions. They play a role in the Earth’s electrical balance and can impact various atmospheric chemical processes.

Advancements in high-speed photography and observational techniques have significantly enhanced our understanding of red sprites. Satellites, airborne observations, and ground-based photometric arrays are now instrumental in studying these transient events.

Challenges of studying red sprites

Despite advancements, observing and studying red sprites remain challenging due to their unpredictability and brief lifespan. Future research aims to better understand the impact of sprites on the atmosphere and their relation to other meteorological phenomena.

In summary, red sprites, while still shrouded in mystery, offer a fascinating glimpse into the complex interplay of Earth’s weather systems and atmospheric electricity. Continued research and observation promise to uncover more secrets of these ephemeral lights, deepening our understanding of our planet’s atmospheric dynamics.

More about red sprites

As discussed above, red sprites are a form of upper atmospheric lightning, a spectacular and somewhat mysterious phenomenon that captures the curiosity of scientists and sky-watchers alike. Unlike the more familiar lightning that occurs within clouds or between clouds and the ground, red sprites are transient luminous events that appear high above thunderstorms, reaching into the Earth’s ionosphere.

Discovery and characteristics

The story of red sprites begins with their discovery. Although pilots had reported seeing unusual red lights above thunderstorms for decades, the scientific community largely dismissed these reports until 1989. That year, scientists at the University of Minnesota accidentally captured images of red sprites while filming a thunderstorm. This serendipitous discovery marked the beginning of focused scientific research into these elusive phenomena.

Red sprites are named for their distinct coloration. Typically, they appear as red at higher altitudes and fade to blue at lower altitudes. This coloration is due to the interaction of electrical discharges with nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Sprites can take various shapes, including jellyfish-like forms with tendrils extending downward and columnar shapes known as “carrot sprites.”

Forming at altitudes between 50 to 90 kilometers (31 to 56 miles), red sprites occur directly above large thunderstorm systems. They are fleeting, lasting only milliseconds, and are best observed at night. Their formation is thought to be linked to the intense electrical activity in thunderstorms. When a powerful positive lightning strike occurs within the cloud, it can create an imbalance in the electric field above the storm, triggering the appearance of sprites.

Scientific importance

The study of red sprites is not just for aesthetic appreciation. It also holds significant scientific importance. Understanding sprites can provide insights into the electrical and chemical processes in the upper atmosphere. They are also thought to play a role in the Earth’s global electric circuit, a complex system that involves the entire planet’s electromagnetic environment.

Research into red sprites is challenging due to their brief and unpredictable nature. Scientists use specialized high-speed cameras and sensitive telescopes to capture and study these elusive events. Additionally, research aircraft and satellites are employed to gain a better vantage point for observing and analyzing sprites.

In recent years, public interest in red sprites has grown, thanks in part to the spread of information on social media and the increasing accessibility of high-quality cameras. Amateur astronomers, astronauts and photographers have captured stunning images of red sprites, contributing to both the public’s awareness and the scientific community’s understanding of these fascinating natural phenomena.

In summary, red sprites are a mesmerizing and complex element of our planet’s atmospheric behavior. They represent a beautiful intersection of earth science and atmospheric physics, offering both aesthetic wonder and scientific intrigue. As research continues, we can expect to learn more about how these fleeting flashes of light fit into the broader puzzle of Earth’s atmospheric processes.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day