New Mission Aims to Learn More About the Giant Lightning from Space


The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor will be launched to the International Space Station to observe the electrical spectacle that occurs above thunderstorms. The effects of thunderstorms are often observed from the ISS, but something different is taking place above the cloud tops when lightning strikes down. The strange occurrence is called Transient Luminous Events and was first seen accidentally in 1989.

John R. Winckler, a Minnesota professor, was testing a TV camera in preparation for a rocket launch when he saw that two frames displayed bright light columns above a remote storm cloud. Dr. Torsten Neubert, lead scientist of the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, said that the scientists were shocked by the discovery. Dr. Neubert remarked that airline pilots must have known about the bright light columns. There were anecdotal descriptions about it.

Before the Transient Luminous Events were captured on camera, there were already people who spotted them. These witnesses reported seeing “upward lightning” or “rocket lightning.” The spectacle was named elves and sprites due to their ephemeral, enigmatic nature. The light columns extend tens of kilometers into the atmosphere.

According to Dr. Neubert, the TLEs are a little different to lightning. He said that it is an electric field pulse that travels up. Sprites appear milliseconds after a strong lightning strike that is cloud to ground. The field gets a discharge when the atmosphere gets thin. Elves are caused by the electromagnetic pulse produced by a lightning strike. It is a fleeting, aurora-like expanding circle of light in the ionosphere. Elves occur too far to be seen by the human eye.

Dr. Martin Fullekrug said that elves are well understood even though they are more elusive than sprites. Elves are the most common TLEs. Blue jets or the upward electrical discharge from cloud tops are not well known. They are extremely faint, so they are not studied well. The jets are primarily blue and not really related to lightning. Dr. Fullekrug said that the blue jets appear from time to time and are extremely mysterious.

Where are the Best Places to See these Columns of Light?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and North America are good places to see these bright light columns. Sprites usually appear over land, while elves are typically seen over warm ocean water. Sprites may be spotted in other areas as well.

The main goals of the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor are to study the physics of Transient Luminous Event and the facets of thunderstorms that generate them. ASIM is equipped with gamma ray detectors, X-ray and two cameras that can capture twelve frames per second.