Lightning is beautiful and sprites delightful, but pulsating blue jets are even more fascinating when zapping out the top of an epic storm. Astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured the first-ever video of blue jets as seen from the International Space Station.
Mogensen was the first astronaut from Denmark to leave the planet, and managed to get a lot done in his ten-day stint aboard the space station. We’ve seen lightning from the space station, and even captured photographs of massive red sprites, but this is the first real-time space-based footage of a pulsating blue jet in glorious full-colour. Here’s the whole array of electrical phenomena in one glorious storm:
While Mogensen was zipping over India, he spotted this massive storm from the Cupola of the space station. In the brief 25 seconds of filming, he caught lightning illuminating the clouds (near continuously), a blue jet (0:04), and red sprites (0:20) with the steady yellow-orange glow of city lights to the lower left.
We’ve talked a lot about red sprites recently, cold plasma electrical discharges at 60 to 80 kilometers in altitude. Blue jets are a related yet rarer and stranger phenomena, electrical discharge spearing in columns that fan and fade out by 50 kilometers altitude.
Red sprite cropped and slowed down for ease of viewing. Credit: ESA/NASA/ Andreas Mogensen/Mika McKinnon
Because they’re so rare, we know even less about blue jets than we do about other odd electrical discharges above thunderstorms. The current working theory is that negatively-charged lightning striking the ground leaving the clouds more positively charged. That electrical imbalance is released in skyward high-energizing bursts that ionize nitrogen to produce a blue glow: a blue jet. The electrical ejections fast, reaching speeds of 100 kilometers per second and dissipating within a quarter of a second. In the realtime video captured by Mogensen, it’s far too easy to blink and miss the jet spearing out the top of the storm.
Schematic of sprites, elves, jets, and lightning. Image credit: Abestrobi
The first footage of a blue jet was recorded in 1994, with the first footage from near-space captured during a space shuttle flight on October 21, 1989. The grainy monochrome video captured by the STS-34 mission couldn’t be calibrated, so researchers couldn’t even determine the size or timing of the jet. Almost all the subsequent colour images taken of the phenomena were captured during a single thunderstorm during a 1994 flight, although we also saw a jet in a frame of this time-lapse last year. The video captured by Mogensen is the first full-colour footage of the flickering jets as seen from orbit in real-time, and in his own words, one of the highlights of his mission. But what I really love about it? The spearing light of the jet in the swirling mess of cloud and shadow looks suspiciously like the wormhole from Star Trek: Deep Space 9.