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Sprite (lightning)

Sprite (lightning)

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Sprites are large-scale electrical discharges that occur high above thunderstorm
A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm, a lightning storm, thundershower or simply a storm is a form of weather characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere known as thunder. The meteorologically assigned cloud type associated with the...

 clouds, or cumulonimbus, giving rise to a quite varied range of visual shapes flickering in the night sky. They are triggered by the discharges of positive lightning
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

 between an underlying thundercloud and the ground.

Sprites appear as luminous reddish-orange flashes. They often occur in clusters within the altitude range 50–90 km above the Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

's surface. Sporadic visual reports of sprites go back at least to 1886, but they were first photographed on July 6, 1989 by scientists from the University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

 and have subsequently been captured in video recordings many thousands of times.

Sprites are sometimes inaccurately called upper-atmospheric lightning
Upper-atmospheric lightning
Upper-atmospheric lightning or upper-atmospheric discharge are terms sometimes used by researchers to refer to a family of short-lived electrical-breakdown phenomena that occur well above the altitudes of normal lightning and storm clouds. Upper-atmospheric lightning is believed to be electrically...

. However, sprites are cold plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

 phenomena that lack the hot channel temperatures of tropospheric lightning, so they are more akin to fluorescent tube discharges than to lightning discharges.


Allusions to transient optical phenomena above thunderclouds can be found in anecdotal reports from as early as 1730 (see Johann Georg Estor
Johann Georg Estor
Johann Georg Estor , was a German theorist of public law, historian and book collector. To his opinion the Roman Law is strange to the original German law-culture and must be considered as a foreign body.- Life :...

). Nobel laureate C. T. R. Wilson
Charles Thomson Rees Wilson
Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, CH, FRS was a Scottish physicist and meteorologist who received the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the cloud chamber.- Biography:...

 had suggested in 1925, on theoretical grounds, that electrical breakdown could occur in the upper atmosphere, and in 1956 witnessed what possibly could have been a sprite. They were first documented photographically on July 6, 1989 when scientists from the University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

, using a low-light video camera, accidentally captured the first image of what would subsequently become known as a sprite.

Several years after their discovery they were named sprite
Sprite (creature)
The term sprite is a broad term referring to a number of preternatural legendary creatures. The term is generally used in reference to elf-like creatures, including fairies, and similar beings , but can also signify various spiritual beings, including ghosts. In Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books,...

s (air spirits) after the mischievous character Puck in Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

's Midsummer Night's Dream. Since their 1989 discovery, sprites have been imaged tens-of-thousands of times, from the ground, from aircraft, and from space, and have become the subject of intensive investigations.


Sprites have been observed over North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

, Central America
Central America
Central America is the central geographic region of the Americas. It is the southernmost, isthmian portion of the North American continent, which connects with South America on the southeast. When considered part of the unified continental model, it is considered a subcontinent...

, South America
South America
South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. The continent is also considered a subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east...

, Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, Southern Africa
Southern Africa
Southern Africa is the southernmost region of the African continent, variably defined by geography or geopolitics. Within the region are numerous territories, including the Republic of South Africa ; nowadays, the simpler term South Africa is generally reserved for the country in English.-UN...

The Republic of Zaire was the name of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo between 27 October 1971 and 17 May 1997. The name of Zaire derives from the , itself an adaptation of the Kongo word nzere or nzadi, or "the river that swallows all rivers".-Self-proclaimed Father of the Nation:In...

), Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, the Sea of Japan
Sea of Japan
The Sea of Japan is a marginal sea of the western Pacific Ocean, between the Asian mainland, the Japanese archipelago and Sakhalin. It is bordered by Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea. Like the Mediterranean Sea, it has almost no tides due to its nearly complete enclosure from the Pacific...

 and Asia
Asia is the world's largest and most populous continent, located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres. It covers 8.7% of the Earth's total surface area and with approximately 3.879 billion people, it hosts 60% of the world's current human population...

 and are believed to occur during most large thunderstorm systems.
Sprites are colored reddish-orange in their upper regions, with bluish hanging tendril
In botany, a tendril is a specialized stem, leaf or petiole with a threadlike shape that is used by climbing plants for support, attachment and cellular invasion by parasitic plants, generally by twining around suitable hosts. They do not have a lamina or blade, but they can photosynthesize...

s below, and can be preceded by a reddish halo. They last longer than normal lower stratospheric discharges, which last typically a few milliseconds, and are triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between the thundercloud and the ground. They often occur in clusters of two or more, and typically span the altitude range 50 kilometres (31.1 mi) to 90 kilometres (55.9 mi), with what appear to be tendrils hanging below, and branches reaching above.

Optical imaging using a 10,000 frames per second high speed camera
High speed camera
A high speed camera is a device used for recording fast moving objects as a photographic image onto a storage media. After recording, the images stored on the media can be played back in slow-motion...

 shows that sprites are actually clusters of small, decameter-sized (10–100 m, 30–300 ft) balls of ionization that are launched at an altitude of about 80 km and then move downward at speeds of up to ten percent the speed of light
Speed of light
The speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, is a physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its value is 299,792,458 metres per second, a figure that is exact since the length of the metre is defined from this constant and the international standard for time...

, followed a few milliseconds later by a separate set of upward moving balls of ionization. Sprites may be horizontally displaced by up to 50 km from the location of the underlying lightning strike, with a time delay following the lightning that is typically a few milliseconds, but on rare occasions may be up to 100 milliseconds.

Sprite halo

Sprites are sometimes preceded, by about 1 millisecond, by a sprite halo
Halo (optical phenomenon)
A halo from Greek ἅλως; also known as a nimbus, icebow or gloriole) is an optical phenomenon produced by ice crystals creating colored or white arcs and spots in the sky. Many are near the sun or moon but others are elsewhere and even in the opposite part of the sky...

, a pancake-shaped region of weak, transient optical emissions
Light or visible light is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light has wavelength in a range from about 380 nanometres to about 740 nm, with a frequency range of about 405 THz to 790 THz...

 approximately 50 kilometres (31.1 mi) across and 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) thick. The halo is centered at about 70 kilometres (43.5 mi) altitude above the initiating lightning strike. These halos are thought to be produced by the same physical process that produces sprites, but for which the ionization is too weak to cross the threshold required for streamer formation. They are sometimes mistaken for elves, due to their visual similarity and short duration.

Recent research carried out at the University of Houston
University of Houston
The University of Houston is a state research university, and is the flagship institution of the University of Houston System. Founded in 1927, it is Texas's third-largest university with nearly 40,000 students. Its campus spans 667 acres in southeast Houston, and was known as University of...

 in 2002 indicates that some normal (negative) lightning discharges produce a sprite halo, and that every lightning bolt between cloud and ground attempts to produce a sprite or a sprite halo. Research in 2004 by scientists from Tohoku University
Tohoku University
, abbreviated to , located in the city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture in the Tōhoku Region, Japan, is a Japanese national university. It is the third oldest Imperial University in Japan and is a member of the National Seven Universities...

 found that very low frequency
Very low frequency
225px|thumb|right|A VLF receiving antenna at [[Palmer Station]], Antarctica, operated by Stanford UniversityVery low frequency or VLF refers to radio frequencies in the range of 3 kHz to 30 kHz. Since there is not much bandwidth in this band of the radio spectrum, only the very simplest signals...

 emissions occur at the same time as the sprite, indicating that a discharge within the cloud may generate the sprites.

Related aircraft damage

Sprites have erroneously been held responsible for otherwise unexplained accidents involving high altitude vehicular operations above thunderstorms. One example of this is the malfunction of a NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

The stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere, just above the troposphere, and below the mesosphere. It is stratified in temperature, with warmer layers higher up and cooler layers farther down. This is in contrast to the troposphere near the Earth's surface, which is cooler...

 balloon launched on June 6, 1989 from Palestine, Texas
Palestine, Texas
Palestine is a city in Anderson County, Texas, in the United States. As of the 2000 census, the city population was 17,598, and 18,458 in the 2009 estimate. It is the county seat of Anderson County and is situated in East Texas...

. The balloon suffered an uncommanded payload release while flying at 120000 feet (36,576 m) over a thunderstorm near Graham, Texas
Graham, Texas
Graham is a city in north central Texas. It is the county seat of Young County, and as of the 2010 Census had a population of 8,903.-History:...

. Months after the accident, a post-flight investigation concluded that a "bolt of lightning" traveling upward from the clouds provoked the incident. The attribution of the accident to a sprite was evidently made retroactively by several years, since this term was not coined until late 1993. Because of the comparatively low altitude of the balloon, whatever thunderstorm-related discharge may have been a causative factor in the accident, it was more likely to have been one of several other types of stratospheric discharges known to occur, such as blue jets, rather than the higher altitude sprites.

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