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Elusive red sprites captured in sky near Chile's Very Large Telescope

You might not have realized that sprites are real, but this new photo taken at the Paranal Observatory in Chile proves otherwise -- sort of.

Seen on the right side of the image, red sprites, which accompany certain lightning strikes, are extremely difficult to capture on film. (Click to enlarge.) P. Horálek/ESO

Capturing sprites might sound like something best undertaken in the pages of a children's book, but a very real photographer for the European Southern Observatory recently did just that. Of course, the sprites he captured were of the atmospheric rather than phantasmagoric variety, but they're still pretty splendid to behold.

Sprites are red or orange streaks that take place 25-55 miles above thunderstorms, and they sometimes happen when a cloud-to-ground lightning strike occurs.

"Sprites are thought to occur due to ionization of the upper atmosphere above terrestrial lightning strikes," Weather.com explains. "When a positively charged lightning bolt strikes the ground, it leaves the top of the thunderstorm negatively charged. When enough electric potential builds up, a discharge results in the form of a red sprite."

Because the sprites happen in fractions of seconds, they are extremely hard to capture with standard photographic equipment. Fortunately, Petr Horálek, a photographer affiliated with the ESO, had his camera pointed at just the right place at the right time while situated next to the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The ESO estimates that the sprites were caused by a storm likely located at least 500 kilometers (about 310 miles) away.

A few days earlier, Horálek snapped the shot below by the nearby La Silla Observatory. It shows a different set of sprites on the horizon at the bottom left.

Red sprites, along with phenomena known as "blue jets" and "elves," are all classified as transient luminous events (TLEs), and you can read more about them here. You can also see images of red sprites as seen from the ISS and get NASA's take on the phenomenon here.

As the article points out, although pilots reported seeing the elusive atmospheric devils for years, it wasn't until 1989 that a red sprite was captured on film by researchers at the University of Minnesota -- and then only accidentally. So the fact that Horálek was able to capture the phenomenon more than once only goes to show that photographic lightning really can strike twice.

red-sprites-la-silla.jpg
You can see the red sprites on the horizon to the lower left of the Milky Way in this shot taken at ESO's La Silla Observatory. They are blown up in the boxes at the bottom. Look for the shooting star captured between the sprites and the Milky Way too. (Click to enlarge.) P. Horálek/ESO