A photograph taken near ESO's La Silla observatory shows a rare phenomenon known as a Red Sprite. Image Credit: Zdenek Bardon/ESO.

Rare “Red Sprite” Photographed Above ESO Observatory

A stunning photo taken near ESO's La Silla Observatory in the Atacama Desert shows a series of rare Red Sprites in the sky. Like normal lightning we see during storms, red lightning also results from a buildup of electrical charge in clouds, but this time the excess charge is released into the ionosphere instead of to the ground.

A new photo shows bright red streaks in the sky above Chile’s Atacama Desert near ESO’s La Silla Observatory, known as red sprites.

Thunderstorms are accompanied by red sprites and blue jets that are flashes of light associated with normal lightning.

There is a wide region of altitude between 40 and 90 km (about 25 to 55 miles) where red sprites usually appear. But they last only a few seconds.

Despite their elusive nature, “sprite” is a good name for these hard-to-find particles, which are actually an acronym standing for Stratospheric Perturbations Resulting by Intense Thunderstorm Electrification.

Like normal lightning we see during storms, red lightning also results from a buildup of electrical charge in clouds, but this time the excess charge is released into the ionosphere instead of to the ground.

Red sprites have a reddish color.

In addition to red sprites, blue jets are another interesting weather phenomenon.

The blue jets that emerge from thundercloud tops propagate at surprisingly low speeds (roughly 100 km/s or 60 miles/s) as narrow cones of light that are distinguishable by their blue color.

Most of this region lies in the mesosphere, a region between 50 and 80 km (30 and 50 miles) in altitude that overlaps most of the ionospheric D region (between 70 and 90 km, or approximately 40 and 55 miles).

Active research is being conducted on both phenomena.

Folktales have been told for centuries about mysterious red lights in the sky, but experts dismissed them.

Even when respected scientists (including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Thomson Rees Wilson) described the events, the scientific community ignored them, according to Farmer’s Almanac. However, the University of Minnesota scientists captured images of red sprites in 1989, which changed the scientific community’s attitude towards the phenomenon.

There are thousands of photographs and films of red sprites, including ones taken by astronauts on the International Space Station. Still, red sprites remain a rare phenomenon mostly because they last only a few seconds, and people don’t really look for them during thunderstorms.

This new photograph from ESO shows how rewarding it can be for photographers when rare sprites are caught on film. As a result of the camera’s vantage point on ESO’s 3.6m telescope platform, the red sprites appear low on the horizon.

There is a green hue in the photograph’s background, which is called airglow. The ESO explained that when sunlight strikes Earth’s atmosphere during the day, electrons are knocked away from nitrogen and oxygen, recombining at night to create light.

As revealed by ESO, normally, airglow can only be observed in extremely dark skies free of light pollution, as in the sky above Chile’s Atacama Desert near ESO’s La Silla Observatory.

These events are truly powerful.

We reported not long ago about a scientific study on a massive jet lightning burst that reached space. There was a large electrical discharge that rose 80 kilometers above a thunderstorm in Oklahoma in 2018. It carried 100 times more electrical charge than typical thunderstorm lightning, making it the most powerful giant jet ever studied.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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