In Earth’s upper atmosphere, blue jets, red sprites, pixies, halos, trolls and elves streak toward space, rarely caught in the act by human eyes.
This mixed-bag of quasi-mythological terms are all names for transient luminous events, or, quite simply, forms of lightning that dance atop thunderstorm clouds. Airplane pilots have reported seeing them, but their elusive nature makes them hard to study. But ESA astronaut Andreas Morgensen, while aboard the International Space Station in September 2015, filmed hundreds of blue jets flashing over a thunderstorm that was pounding the Bay of Bengal, confirming a mysterious atmospheric phenomenon.
According to Morgensen and researchers at the Denmark National Space Institute, these observations are the first of their kind, and offer a rare glimpse of poorly understood atmospheric phenomena. His work, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, also proves that the ISS is a perfect lab for studying elves and pixies, and a planned follow-up mission should reveal even more.
A Great View
Storm clouds are like electrical cakes with alternating layers of negatively and positively charged ions. Air currents tear through the sky cake, squashing the layers and reversing their stacking order. When the base layer’s charge differs from the earth’s charge—zap. The seems to be true for layers higher in the atmosphere, but instead of striking earth, transient luminous events discharge into space. Of course, you need to be above the clouds to see them; thus, the reason they are difficult to study.