On October 8th is the French astronaut Thomas Bisquet Capture Something strikingly rare on board the International Space Station (ISS).
The image – a single image from a lengthy time-lapse – appears to show a cobalt bomb exploding over Europe, but that terrifying-looking blue light didn’t hurt. In fact, most people never even notice.
Instead, the framework shows something less dangerous called a ‘transient flare event’ – a lightning bolt similar to impact in the upper atmosphere.
Transient light events, also known as upper atmosphere lighting, are a group of related phenomena that occur during thunderstorms but are significantly higher where normal lighting would occur. Although it’s related to lighting, it works a little differently.
There are “blue jets” that occur down in the stratosphere and are released by lightning. As the illumination spreads through the negatively charged (upper) area of the storm clouds before penetrating the positive area below, the lightning bolt eventually strikes upward, igniting a blue glow made of molecular nitrogen.
Then there are red sediments (stratospheric / mesospheric disturbances due to strong electrification of thunderstorms) – often glowing red electrical discharges that occur high above a thunderstorm cell, caused by disturbances from lightning underneath – and slightly faint red ELVES (light emission and intense low frequency disturbances from electromagnetic Pulse sources) in the ionosphere.
To stay with the theme, there are also TROLLs (transient red light flares) that appear after a strong soul, as well as pixies and GHOSTS. We are sure that the scientists had a lot of fun naming all of these phenomena.
“The surprising thing about this lightning bolt is that it was only discovered by pilots a few decades ago and scientists weren’t convinced that it actually existed.” Pesquet explains in an illustration.
A few years later we can confirm that elves and orcs are very real and can affect our climate too!
Although Pesquet doesn’t explain exactly what type of light event we’re seeing, this particular image may show a “blue principle,” which is a blue beam that doesn’t reach the beam part and instead creates a shorter, brighter glow.
These events are particularly difficult to photograph from the ground, as they are very high in the sky and are also regularly obscured by thunderclouds. In addition, this phenomenon usually only lasts for a fraction of a second or only for a few seconds.
With all of these things in mind, the International Space Station makes it an especially great place to look for those fleeting events, especially if you have an intermittent operation. So far we have seen a number of these events from astronauts on the International Space Station and a small number from Earth.
Interestingly, Earth isn’t the only place where light shows are held, as researchers only discovered last year that “blue sprites” are also found on Jupiter.
“The space station is very well suited for this observatory as it flies over the equator, where there are more thunderstorms.” Pesquet says.
“This is a very rare occurrence and we have a facility outside of the Columbus laboratory in Europe dedicated to monitoring these flashes of light.”
We hope that this research will give us more pictures of this amazing phenomenon in the future!