The Gemini North telescope, located on the Hawaiian shield volcano Mauna Kea, was able to simultaneously capture two rare bolts of lightning at once – a red sprite and a blue jet. The image was published by the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab).

A red sprite and a blue jet
Image: NOIRLab

Sprites are electrical discharges of cold plasma in the mesosphere and thermosphere, which appear during severe thunderstorms at high altitudes – from 50 to 130 km above the ground. Most often, sprites propagate up and down at the same time, but downward propagation is noticeably larger and faster.

Lightning jets are formed just below. They seem to shoot from the most active thunderclouds and can reach lengths up to 50 km in the stratosphere.

The first pictures of the sprites were obtained only in 2005 in Colorado, and a little later, in Alaska. These photos were taken using a special high-speed camera that produces 5-10 thousand frames per second.

Both types of lightning last only milliseconds and are often simply invisible from the Earth, since the view is obscured by clouds, so the Gemini North telescope image can be called unique. Previously, such natural phenomena were captured mainly from space, in particular, from the ISS. In 2017, astronauts at the ISS observed 245 bright blue thunderstorms in 160 seconds.

For scientists, sprites and jets are not yet a completely understandable phenomenon: for example, there is still no exact answer as to what long-term consequences they cause in the atmosphere. For example, if they affect the ozone layer and generally change the upper atmosphere's chemical composition.