Astronauts captured a rare image of a giant red sprite over Central America

An astronaut took a beautiful photo of Earth at night, below, while flying over Central America in the International Space Station.

The moon is in the upper left, and a massive thunderstorm off to the right.

But there’s something weird lurking in this image, captured on August 10.

Can you spot it?

Look to the right, just above the thunderstorm.

Upon closer inspection, space writer Jason Major saw a big red sprite:

Below is a closer look at this oddity.

Note the tendrils (purple) rising from the thunderstorm (bright white/blue) up toward the flash of the sprite (red), sort of like an electrical puppeteer and marionette:

Sprites are enormous.

This one, like the handful of others astronauts have captured, probably rises up 50 miles and stretches a few miles wide.

Although they are very common, sprites are rarely photographed. A thunderstorm produces a sprite once or twice a minute yet each flash lasts only a few milliseconds. They’re very hard to see from the ground, too — typically because a big, fat, scary thunderstorm is in the way.

But they can be caught by Earth-based photographers. Jason Ahrns gets incredible shots of them by flying a small aircraft around thunderstorms over Nebraska and other central US states.

Here’s a sprite from the side that Ahrns photographed from an aeroplane in 2013:

Ahrns also managed to take high-speed videos of the fleeting phenomena.

This clip, slowed about 500 times, shows a sprite bursting into sparks:

Here’s another sprite video by Ahrns, slowed down by roughly 666 times:

Sprites are akin to gigantic red lightning bursts.

Steve Cummer, a Duke University engineer who’s studied sprites for years, summed up how they form quite nicely in a National Geographic News story I wrote a few years ago:

“They’re sparks created in the upper atmosphere, well above a storm cloud, that follows lightning below the cloud,” Cummer said. “The [lightning] charge creates an electric field and, when it’s big enough, it drives a spark that propagates upward.”

The spark turns red because of the nitrogen high in Earth’s atmosphere. Something like a fluorescent tube, the gas gets excited by the burst of electricity and emits a red glow.

Sprites aren’t just a curious phenomenon. They might play an incredibly important role in shaping the composition of the air we breathe by fusing together and breaking apart different molecules or air.

Read more about Jason Ahrns’ sprite photography here and here. (Thanks to science writer Corey Powell for the tip about the sprite seen from space.)

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