Jason Ahrns, a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, goes sprite-chasing at night during electrical storms. Here he captures column-shaped red sprites over Red Willow County, Nebraska, on Aug. 12, 2013.
A “jellyfish” sprite photographed over Republic County, Kansas, on August 3, 2013. "I have very good low light eyesight, and I've watched tons of sprites in real time on the context cameras so I know exactly what and where to look. I was watching intently out the window while I snapped these shots, and the camera caught a sprite that I didn't see," writes Ahrns in his blog: http://musubk.blogspot.fr/2013/08/sprites-2013-update-4.html
Like flames from a butane lighter, three blue jets (slightly blurred due to the motion of the aircraft) appear above the lightning-lit clouds in this photo taken over Republic County, Kansas, on August 3, 2013. Ahrns describes this picture as the "the cream of the crop," due to the difficult nature of capturing blue jets. "Since jets tend to hug the top of the clouds it's understandable that they're more difficult for a ground observer to see/photograph, so it makes sense that being up in a sprite-chasing aircraft would give me a serious advantage," he writes.
"Unlike sprites, blue jets aren’t directly triggered by lightning, but seem to be somehow related to the presence of hail storms," reports the Smithsonian: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/artscience/2013/08/scientists-capture-rare-photographs-of-red-lightning/.
Red sprite over Canadian County, Oklahoma, on August 6, 2013. "I was also able to see quite a few jets with my naked eyes! That's a first for me, and I'm always excited to see a new sky phenomenon for myself. I still haven't been able to see a sprite naked-eye, and it impresses me just how difficult that actually is," Ahrns writes.
Ahrns' Nikon D7000 on a flexible tripod points out the window of the sprite-chasing aircraft, a Gulfstream V with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "I butted the camera up against the window glass and put my weight on it to get rid of most of the wobbles and light leaks, but the motion of the aircraft itself still showed up, especially when we hit a patch of turbulence (we are, you know, flying right next to a thunderstorm)," he writes.
Editor's note: Updated to include a second photo of another sprite captured moments later by the same camera (added at bottom of article).
This gorgeous photo, captured from the International Space Station on the night of Aug. 10, 2015, shows an orbital view of thunderstorms over the city lights of southern Mexico as a recumbent Orion rises over Earth’s limb. But wait, there’s more: along the right edge of the picture a cluster of bright red and purple streamers can be seen rising above a blue-white flash of lightning: it’s an enormous red sprite caught on camera!
First photographed in 1989, red sprites are very brief flashes of optical activity that are associated with powerful lightning. So-called because of their elusive nature, sprites typically appear as branching red tendrils reaching up above the region of an exceptionally strong lightning flash. These electrical discharges can extend as high as 55 miles (90 kilometers) into the atmosphere, with the brightest region usually around altitudes of 40–45 miles (65–75 km).
Sprites don’t last very long — 3–10 milliseconds at most — and so to catch one (technically here it’s a cluster of them) on camera is a real feat... or, in this case, a great surprise!
Sprites have been photographed from the ISS before (it’s a great place from which to observe these phenomena, which are often obscured from the ground by storm clouds) but this is one of the best images of one I’ve seen yet.
Detail of the sprite photographed over Mexico on Aug. 10, 2015.NASA
(And in case you’re wondering that’s the moon (not the sun) shining brightly in the star-filled sky, and the yellow-green light surrounding the planet isn’t aurora — it’s a different phenomena called airglow.)
Learn more about the history of sprite research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks website.
UPDATE (11:50 p.m. ET): Just a few minutes earlier the same storm had created another sprite outburst, which was amazingly also captured on camera as the ISS was moving southeast: