TEXAS-SIZED SPRITES: Technically, summer hasn’t started yet in the USA, but summer thunderstorms are already rumbling across the Great Plains, bringing with them strange forms of upper atmospheric lightning. “Sprite season is definitely picking up here in Texas,” reports Kevin Palivec, who operates an array of night-sky cameras in the town of Hawley. This week he has photographed a flurry of lightning-like forms including this Gigantic Jet shooting up from a thunderstorm in Oklahoma:
“The line of storms in Oklahoma was perfectly positioned for me to record these jets leaping over the cloudtops about 300 miles away,” says Palivec. “I used a Watec 902h Ultimate black and white camera in a pan tilt weatherproof housing on a 20 foot tower.”
Gigantic jets are like sprites on steroids. They are rare and far more powerful than their smaller red cousins. “I’ve been monitoring the skies here in Texas for 6 years. To date, I’ve only caught 5 gigantic jets–two of which have been studied in research papers. It is always exciting to see them.”
One night later, on May 15th, “another line of storms moved through producing sprites to my north and south!” says Palivec.
Some researchers think that sprites and gigantic jets may be linked to cosmic rays: Subatomic particles from deep space strike the top of Earth’s atmosphere, producing secondary electrons that trigger the upward bolts. If this is true, then sprites could multiply in the years ahead as cosmic rays intensify due to the decline of the solar cycle.
Although sprites have been seen for at least a century, most scientists did not believe they existed until after 1989 when sprites were photographed by cameras onboard the space shuttle. Now “sprite chasers” like Palivec routinely photograph sprites from their own homes. Give it a try!