Too cool, part 40: Red sprites in incredible detail


Astronomy Picture of the Day today featured a confusing and abstract image, because it’s something probably never seen in this detail before: a collection of red sprites above an active thunderstorm.

Here’s the deal. Occasionally, waaayyyy above the tops of the clouds on some thunderstorms, there is an additional discharge – actually, two different kinds, the other being blue jets. They’re as brief as the lightning, but much dimmer, and can only be seen either from the side or from an aircraft at high altitude near the storm (which is how they were first reported, from airline pilots.) And as yet, no one knows how they form, but to be honest, we still don’t know exactly what causes lightning either.

It has long been my goal to capture one of these, and there’s a slim chance that I might have caught the vestiges of a couple, not long ago. Yet it takes not just the right kind of storm (that no one has pinned down,) but also the right conditions, seen from a distance to the side without anything in the way, and exposing for a dim display – such conditions are hard to come by. Hell, just pinning down lightning photos is challenging enough.

And then, Stephane Vetter here blows everyone out of the water and does a great deal towards lessening my enthusiasm, because beating this image is going to be well-nigh impossible. Oh, I suppose I’ll still be trying, but there’s no motivation to be the first to capture something like this in such detail. Note the graininess to the image, indicating that a very high ISO setting was required to snag the weak display, as well as no star trails, so the exposure was still relatively brief.

You can also check out the website of The World At Night for more night sky exposures, but be warned: some of these are specialized captures with expanded ISO cameras, and some are simply composites and other shenanigans, something not possible until digital editing came on the scene (you know, the exact same kind of editing that people rant about giving unrealistic expectations about models and beauty – in other words, not possible in normal means or ‘in-camera.’) If you’re getting the impression that the trend towards shamelessly and extensively editing night sky images makes me annoyed, well, you’re right. Might as well dub in a couple extra moons while you’re at it.

All that aside, this definitely ranks as Too Cool, and check out the various links in that post.

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