ISS: Animation shows blue jet lightning above clouds
Lightning remains one of the most spectacular and mysterious weather phenomena, with experts still unable to fully explain the variety of violent electrical discharges generated in our atmosphere. There are many elements to lightning left to fully explore, from elves, red sprites, to blue jets.
Part of the problem is how these oddly-named events are notoriously tricky to spot from Earth’s surface.
ASIM [is] a true international collaboration that has led to amazing discoveries
ESA’s Astrid Orr
However, the European Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) observatory on the International Space Station (ISS) is allowing scientists to learn more about lightning.
ASIM’s enhanced perspective from space is illuminating more about such extreme weather and their characteristics.
A variety of cutting-edge of optical cameras, photometers and an X- and gamma-ray detector were set-up on the orbiting space laboratory in 2018.
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The tech is designed to spot electrical discharges originating in tempestuous weather conditions towering over thunderstorms into our planet’s upper echelons.
And the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA’s collaborative experiment’s findings have resulted in a stunning discovery.
A paper published on Nature’s front page describes a sighting of five intense blue flashes in a cloud top, one generating a “blue jet” into the stratosphere.
Blue jets are an unusual lightning category which shoots upwards from thunderstorm clouds.
They can zip up to 31 miles (50km) into Earth’s stratosphere within less than a second.
The NASA/ESA space storm-hunter measured a blue jet which began with an intense five 10-microsecond flash in a cloud near the Pacific Ocean island of Naru.
The flash also generated the ultra-elusive ‘elves’ – rapidly-expanding rings of optical and ultraviolet emissions at the ionosphere’s base.
Experts understand electrons, radio waves and the atmosphere interact to form these elve emissions.
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Red emission from the blue jet leader was both faint and very limited.
This, the researchers suggest, means the leader itself is very short and localised, compared to fully developed lightning leaders between the ground and clouds.
As a result, the flashes and blue jets are likely a type of discharge streamers: branched, writhing sparks striking out of high voltage sources on a chain-reaction of ionising air particles.
The researchers wrote: ”We propose then, that the UV pulses are elves that are generated by the streamer flash currents, rather than by lightning currents.”
Astrid Orr, ESA’s Physical Sciences Coordinator for human and robotic spaceflight said in a statement: “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.
“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 ground operating ASIM— a true international collaboration that has led to amazing discoveries.”
ASIM’s super sensitive tools also offer a practical purpose for researching more common weather systems on terra firma.
The observations hold clues to how lightning is initiated in clouds and investigators think these phenomena could even influence the concentration of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere.
This consequently underlines the importance of scientific studies such as this taking place hundreds of miles above our heads.
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