State-of-the-art equipment on the International Space Station (ISS) has captured a brilliant view of a thunderstorm from above, including a clear view of a strange type of lightning known as a blue jet.
The footage could help us better understand how lighting originates and even how storms distribute greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, offering important pointers on weather systems in general.
However, the footage also offers a damned cool perspective of electrical storms that we’ve never enjoyed until now.
In a video released by the European Space Agency that was captured in February 2019, blue-colored lightning bolts can be seen shooting upwards from storm clouds over the Pacific island of Nauru into the highest reaches of the stratosphere.
Blue jets are types of lightning that shoot upwards from thunderclouds into the stratosphere, striking altitudes exceeding 30 miles (50 km) in under a second. While our typical lightning interacts with a mixture of gases in the lower atmosphere to create glowing white bolts, blue jets excite stratospheric nitrogen to create a luminous blue hue.
While the phenomenon has long been observed from aircraft and ground-level vantage points, the European Space Agency’s Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) at the ISS, which is about 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth, has enabled researchers to get the best glimpse yet of a blue jet arising from a sudden burst of electricity emanating from the top of a thundercloud, according to research published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature.
“Elves,” or rapidly-expanding rings of optical and UV emissions, were also generated by the flash. The emissions, which took place at the bottom of the ionosphere, were a result of the interaction between electrons, radio waves, and the atmosphere.
Blue jets and elves, like other upper-atmospheric phenomena such as mythological-sounding sprites, are important to our understanding of how radio waves travel through the air, with potential ramifications on our communications technologies as well as the more fundamental questions of how lightning is initiated in our clouds and how greenhouse gases are concentrated in the atmosphere.
However, spotting these brilliant light shows has been difficult for earthbound observers. Yet the highly sensitive tools installed on the Space Station in 2018 – including photometers, optical cameras, and an X- and gamma-ray detector –were able to capture the elusive phenomena.
The knowledge gleaned from the footage could prove crucial to researchers finally making sense of the processes unfolding in the upper atmosphere.
“This paper is an impressive highlight of the many new phenomena ASIM is observing above thunderstorms and shows that we still have so much to discover and learn about our Universe,” said Astrid Orr, the Physical Sciences Coordinator for human and robotic spaceflight at the European Space Agency.
“Congratulations to all the scientists and university teams that made this happen as well as the engineers that built the observatory and the support teams on the ground operating ASIM—a truly international collaboration that has led to amazing discoveries,” Orr added.