If as a child you used to be extremely passionate about astrology and natural phenomena, you’ve probably heard about and even seen lightning sprites (or photos of them) on occasion. But if you’re completely unaware of what that is, don’t worry, you’ve come to the right article.
Lightning sprites, or red sprites as they are often referred to, are usually seen in clusters of at least two, and they have been compared to jellyfish, tree roots, carrots, or even the nervous system of the human body, appearance-wise. When it comes to their color, they are often an intense red orange, or even a golden gate orange on the upper ‘bursting flames’ portion, and towards the ends of the tendrils they can have a hint of blue.
The name ‘sprite’ means ‘air spirit’ and they are called so because of how elusive they are. So much so, that the first visual records happened in the 19th century around the year 1886 and they came from pilots who reported seeing strange lights. Fast-forward, the sprites were predicted by C. T. R. Wilson in the year 1924, but it took another 65 years until the first video evidence shot by John R. Winckler. In July 1989, the experimental physicist was testing a low-light television camera and managed to capture the first documented proof of lightning sprites. Later on, in 1994, on the 4th of July, the first photographic proof came to life thanks to scientists of the University of Michigan.
Put simply, these sprites are a mechanism with the help of which electrical charges are being dispersed on a vertical route. They are often the suitors of regular lightning bolts, but only those that are especially powerful and charged positively. Regular lightning can happen without a sprite apparition, but sprites cannot happen without regular lightning.
In scientific terms, the material of these discharges is cold plasma because, as opposed to the usual bolt, it lacks the high channel temperatures and it also occurs higher than the former. With the help of a professional camera (10.000 fps), it was concluded that the clusters are composed of balls of ionization, with sizes between 33 and 328 feet, that are sent flying downwards from a 50-mile altitude, with speeds up to 10% of that of light. Those are immediately succeeded by another group of ionization balls, only those move upwards.
Going into even greater detail than what they look like and what they are, now we’ll analyze how they form and mention what types of sprites exist. Knowing how this happens is crucial because of the interference and disruptions they can cause to HF communication and radio waves. Those signals operate in the ionosphere where they can be properly propagated thanks to the reflections from ionized layers.
When sprites happen, they appear near extremely charged particles or at the irregularities in plasma, and they change the lower layer of the ionosphere (from 30 to 600 miles up) by affecting its electrical properties. They form in the mesosphere, the layer which is from 31 to 53 miles up, above the stratosphere and the troposphere. The troposphere (from 5 to 9 miles up) is the layer in which Cumulonimbus (thunder clouds) gather and create thunderstorms, the natural phenomena that is present with every sprite formation. Although some think that they only happen on rare occasions, this is not true. It only seems that way because of the speed with which they go from appearing to disappearing, which is less than a 10th of a second. This is the reason why they are called ‘elusive’ time and time again.
The 3 types that were classified by Rodger in the year 1999 based on their appearance are:
On occasion, approximately 43 miles higher, a Halo precedes these discharges, showing itself maybe one millisecond before the actual sprite. The color matches, with the same red hue, and it looks just like an angel’s halo. The way it forms is similar, with the difference that its process is too weak, thus rendering it unable to get into the same shape.
We know the who, we know the how, now let’s look at the why. The reasons behind these red lights has been discussed oftentimes in past centuries, but some findings still aren’t conclusive to this day. Scientists say that the appearance of these sprites is prompted by very strong, positively charged, thundercloud-originated lightning bolts that strike the ground heavily. These perturbations, as they are called, need to be small-sized but very ample. If one of the two differs, two outcomes can occur:
Other possible theories that haven’t been 100% proven, but are thought to cause sprites:
As we’re sure we might’ve sparked something in those of you who are photography enthusiasts, here are a few tips on how to capture a sprite on camera.
Maybe you’ve heard of them before, maybe you haven’t, but for us one thing is certain. We hope that you’ve found any bit of this information interesting or structured in a way that helped you understand this interesting phenomenon better.
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