Sprites Over Oklahoma
On Saturday night, May 23rd, strong thunderstorms raked Texas and Oklahoma, producing torrential rains and deadly floods. Amateur astronomer Thomas Ashcraft could see the lightning bolts all the way from New Mexico--and not all of them were going down. "There was a bright display of sprites shooting up from the tops of the thunderclouds," says Ashcraft. He took this picture using a near-infrared camera at his observatory outside Santa Fe:
"Sprites are a true space weather phenomenon," says lightning scientist Oscar van der Velde of the Technical University of Catalonia, Spain. "They develop in mid-air around 80 km altitude, growing in both directions, first down, then up. This happens when a fierce lightning bolt draws lots of charge from a cloud near Earth's surface. Electric fields [shoot] to the top of Earth's atmosphere--and the result is a sprite."
Although sprites have been seen for at least a century, most scientists did not believe they existed until after 1989 when sprites were photographed by cameras onboard the space shuttle. Now "sprite chasers" routinely photograph sprites from their own homes.