SPACE LIGHTNING OVER TEXAS


Northern Fall has arrived. But in West Texas thunderstorms are crackling like it's mid-summer. On October 6th, a powerful squall line swept across Texas, strafing the landscape with bolts of lightning and shooting jellyfish sprites up toward the edge of space. Paul Smith photographed these specimens 165 miles away from the storm in Minco, Oklahoma.

"The sprites were fantastic," says Smith. "I photographed quite a few through gaps in clouds before the sky became completely overcast."
Sprites are an exotic form of upward-directed lightning--sometimes called "space lightning" because their tendrils can extend to the very top of Earth's atmosphere. You have to be far away to see them over the edges of towering thunderclouds. Smith's distance of 165 miles was just right.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the storm, Thomas Ashcraft photographed the same sprites a similar distance away in New Mexico.


"In addition to the sprites, you can also see faint red ripples of light in the atmosphere behind them," points out Ashcraft. Those are "gravity waves"--literally, the ripple effect of the thunderstorm on the mesosphere some 80 km above Earth's surface. From space, these waves look like a giant atmospheric bull's eye

Gravity waves often appear in the backgrounds of sprite photos because both phenomena spring from the same source--powerful thunderstorms.

"Despite the coming of Fall, we are still seeing a lot of electrical activity in our part of the USA," says Ashcraft. "The past couple of weeks have produced some very dynamic conditions."

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