Sunday, July 20, 2014

RED SPRITES OVER NEW MEXICO: a true space weather phenomenon


Solar activity is extremely low (see "The All Quiet Event" below). Nevertheless, space weather continues. High above thunderstorms in the American west, red sprites are dancing across the cloudtops, reaching up to the edge of space itself. Harald Edens photographed this specimen on July 18th from the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research in New Mexico:

"This colorful sprite occurred over a large thunderstorm system in northeast New Mexico and was visible to the naked eye," says Edens. "I took the picture using a Nikon D4s and a 50 mm f/2 lens at ISO 25600."

Inhabiting the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere alongside noctilucent clouds, meteors, and some auroras, sprites are a true space weather phenomenon. Some researchers believe they are linked to cosmic rays: subatomic particles from deep space striking the top of Earth's atmosphere produce secondary electrons that, in turn, could provide the spark that triggers sprites.

Although sprites have been seen for at least a century, most scientists did not believe they existed until after 1989 when sprites were photographed by cameras onboard the space shuttle. Now "sprite chasers" regularly photograph the upward bolts from their own homes. Give it a try!

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