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Brighter Than the Planet Venus': Team Captures Lightning Sprites in 3D


"pretty to look at."

A team of thunderstorm chasers funded by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation have captured what National Geographic reports to be the first 3D film of lightning sprites. Sprites are huge, very brief flashes of light that happen above thunder clouds, 50 miles up from land.

The sprites, National Geographic reports, are electrical phenomena that have been scientifically recognized since 1989 but little is known about what causes the often colorful, intensely bright flashes. Hans Stenbaek-Nielsen, a space physicist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is reported as saying the flashes are "brighter than the planet Venus" from the view we see on Earth.

Check out this brief footage caught of a "clear image" of a sprite:

Here's more on how they captured the footage, which was presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, according to National Geographic:

Last summer, Stenbaek-Nielsen joined a team of thunderstorm chasers funded by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Carrying high-speed video cameras on a pair of Gulfstream jets, the scientists flew across the Midwest, hunting out sprite-generating thunderstorms.

When the team found its quarry, the researchers filmed the lightning sprites and other bursts at 10,000 frames a second from two different angles, allowing the creation of the first stereoscopic videos of these phenomena.

What researchers do know about the sprites is that they require a huge amount of energy and are found in the mesosphere, an area of the atmosphere where researchers used to think not much activity occurred:

"Traditionally, the weather here on the ground has been thought to be separated from the 'weather' that goes on in space," said Geoff McHarg, a space physicist at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado who was also part of the study team.

"We had this big range in the middle [of Earth's atmosphere] called the mesosphere. When I was in graduate school, we called it the ignore-o-sphere. It was thought not much goes on there."

At this point, National Geographic reports Stenbaek-Nielsen as comparing the sprites to rainbows, since scientists aren't sure if they serve any real purpose in the environment aside from being "pretty to look at."

Wired reports the researchers as also filming crawlers and blue jets, which form on the top of thunder clouds.

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