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Back in the 1980s, researchers were amazed when they discovered sprites--luminous red forms dancing on top of intense electrical storms, reaching their strangely-shaped tentacles up to the edge of space. Since then, sprites have been photographed by astronomers around the world. Now a new form of upper atmospheric lightning is being seen: the Gigantic Jet. "They are related to sprites but more powerful and easier to see with the naked eye," says Frankie Lucena of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, who has photographed almost 2 dozen this year so far:

"Gigantic Jets are rarer than sprites," notes Oscar van der Velde, a member of the Lightning Research Group at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. "While sprites were discovered in 1989 and have since been photographed by the thousands, it was not until 2001-2002 that Gigantic Jets were first recorded from Puerto Rico and Taiwan." 
Before 2017, Gigantic Jet sightings numbered in the dozens. Lucena alone has added approximately 20 to that total in a single year. "These jets came from 4 different storms," says Lucena. "They were all tropical waves except for tropical storm Harvey, which was by far the most prolific producer of the jets."
The most recent event in Lucena's collection was on Sept 30, 2017--"just 10 days after Hurricane Maria devastated my island," he points out. The capture is a testament to Lucena's dedication and observing skill. He powered his cameras using a gasoline generator and a backup battery because the island's electrical grid was almost completely disabled. "I wish I had solar power at my house because the lines for gasoline were very long and money spent on it really hurt the pocket. We went 82 days without power," he adds.

Gigantic Jets and their cousins the sprites inhabit the upper atmosphere alongside auroras, meteors, and noctilucent clouds. Some researchers believe they are linked to cosmic rays: subatomic particles from deep space striking the top of Earth's atmosphere produce secondary electrons that could, in turn, provide the spark for these upward bolts.

The link to cosmic rays is particularly interesting at this time. For the past two+ years, space weather balloons have observed a steady increase in deep space radiation penetrating our atmosphere. This increase is largely due to the decline in the solar cycle. Flagging solar wind pressure and weakening sunspot magnetic fields allow more cosmic rays into the inner solar system--a trend which is expected to continue for years to come. These changes could add up to even more Gigantic Jets in the future. Stay tuned!


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