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Brilliant Red Sprite Lightning Caught on Film

Amazing new photos and video of the elusive red lightning called sprites are helping researchers understand how the mysterious electric bursts form.

Sprites last less than a second as they dance on the tops of thunderstorms. Many viewers say the clusters of charged particles look like jellyfish — big, red balls with tendrils that reach down into the clouds. But red sprites take many shapes, from crowns to carrots, and researchers still don’t why. Because few sprites are seen from the ground, thanks to obscuring storms, scientists are hunting them from the air.

Graduate student Jason Ahrns captured stunning images of sprites during several flights over the Midwest this summer aboard the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Gulfstream V research plane. Ahrns is part of a sprite-hunting team from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

During the research flights, the scientists snapped high-speed photos and video, which will help them to better understand the chemical and physical processes behind the phenomenon.

"It’s still not clear what exactly is happening in a sprite, and why there are different kinds of sprites," Ahrns told LiveScience in an email interview.

Sprites could also impact weather and climate by changing conditions in Earth’s atmosphere, but scientists don’t yet know the scale of the effect, Ahrns said. "We can’t answer that without studying them."

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