Red sprites and blue jets light the night

Recently released picture from the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) reveals two stunning sites at once
blue jets Taken by the Gemini North telescope at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, this image captures a super rare pair of lightning strikes. (International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/A. Smith)


Lightning is nothing to be bored about. Dangerous and beautiful, it is an example of the raw power that nature can dish out without even breaking a sweat. It can stretch for miles, invade a volcano, and even win a hockey championship. Okay, different 'lightning' there, but still ... you get the point. It is awesome stuff.

But let's say that you did find lightning boring. All flash, no substance, you say. A one trick pony. Been there, zapped that. Well, lightning would like a word with you.

It's more than just white hot bolts cutting across the sky. If you can look in the right place—above the clouds, at the exact millisecond? You'll see it hover as ghosts of red energy. You'll see it launch to the heavens in a solid column of blue fire.

You'll see just how incredible lightning can be.

Sprites and jets

Thanks to a photo provided last week by the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) in Tuscon, Arizona, the full power of lightning is on display for you now. The photo—taken in 2017 above the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea—shows examples of two rare phenomenon in one image.

Red sprites and blue jets.

We've actually discussed red sprites last summer here. This post talked about a photo that looked like a red alien jellyfish was invading Earth. (Don't worry, it wasn't!) That photo was incredible enough. But this new one? It's truly next level. If you're really keen on zooming in on the photo, the NOIRlab site has uploaded a full-sized version here and it's worth a look!

Going up!

red sprites blue jets

An image taken from the ISS showing red sprites in action. (NASA)

In addition to the colours on display, something that is really interesting about red sprites and blue jets is that they both shoot upward, not down toward the ground. A big part of this is that they both happen above the clouds, not below. They are actually part of an opposite reaction to a lightning strike below the clouds. If one is especially powerful, it can create a red sprite and/or blue jet above!

For these reasons, they're something that we tend not to see. So while astroanuts on the International Space Station (ISS) can catch them in real time if they're lucky, we generally have to be content with photos like this. And as much as we'd love to see red sprites and blue jets happen with our own eyes, we've got no complaints with this spectacular image.

NOIRlab called it their 'image of the week'. But so far, it might be our image of the year!


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