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'Red sprites' are nature's best recently discovered light show

Brief bursts of energy over storms were first photographed from space less than 30 years ago. Now fans on the ground are starting to chase the phenomenon.

A red sprite captured over the Czech Republic on July 21.
Martin Popek

If you're lucky enough to catch them, so-called red sprites are like something from a fireworks show or a psychedelic sci-fi trip. But they're a natural occurrence, kind of like the aurora borealis or those streaking meteors that turn into bright fireballs as they burn up in the atmosphere.

These fleeting and fantastic discharges of electricity reach high into the atmosphere and are typically spotted above thunderclouds. For decades they were thought to be hallucinations reported by weary pilots, until a NASA scientist aboard the space shuttle finally photographed them in 1989. 

Today the proliferation of better photographic technology has brought us more sightings, including a trio from just the last week alone.

Martin Popek, an observer for the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute of Atmospheric Physics, shared his most recent photo of the sprites, taken July 21. 

But Popek isn't the only person making a hobby of catching the elusive sprites in the sky. Last week, Australian amateur sky watcher David Finlay managed to grab rare video of some red sprites:

Apparently, observers in Tokyo grabbed their own images of the intermittent dancing tendrils within hours of Finlay's spotting down under:

Popek also shared a few more of his favorite sprite shots with me:


More short-lived sprite shows.

Martin Popek

Popek told me via email that in 2017 alone, he's already observed 286 sprites from 33 different storms. That's not bad for a phenomenon that typically lasts less than a second and was only captured from orbit until recent years.  

Impressive galleries of sprite sightings have begun to pop up online, and the community is growing now that it's more common to see the sprites without the aid of a plane or space shuttle. Popek's setup is considerably simpler: just this security camera and some special motion capture software.

If you join the hunt and manage to grab some of your own sprite shots, please share them with me on Twitter at @EricCMack.

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