What are Red Sprites?

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Earlier today I posted a link to this image of a red sprite taken by Jacob Thompson in Illinois. My wife posted a response asking what a red sprite is.

A red sprite is a rare type of electrical discharge that can occur above a large thunderstorm. They can take on a number of different shapes and are usually red to orange. Sprites only last fractions of a second and are faint so are hard to spot with the naked eye. They rise between 50 and 90km above the Earth’s surface.

They are triggered by positive lightning between a cumulonimbus cloud and the ground. They were only first photographed in 1989. To capture them you need to have the right conditions. A dark clear sky and a good view of the atmosphere above a distant thunderstorm.

Unlike ordinary lightning, these electrical discharges are not high temperature, but are more like the discharges inside fluorescent light tubes.

Here’s a timelapse video showing some sprites, produced by Randy Halverson:

Sprites, Gravity Waves and Airglow from Randy Halverson on Vimeo. Randy has a page here with more video and stills.

Other types of upper-atmospheric lightning are blue jets, blue starters, gigantic jets and ELVES. You can read more about them in this Wikipedia article.