Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Erica Rolfe
European Space Agency

Seeing sprites and elves from space

Altitude seperates blue jets (lowest altitude) from red sprites (middle) and elves (highest) Credits: Danish National Space Center
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Every year, hundreds of people are killed or injured by lightning. But not all flashes of lightning strike the ground. Red sprites, blue jets and elves are forms of lightning that soar up towards space. Now European scientists are hoping to use the International Space Station (ISS) to learn more about these spectacular, but elusive, natural events.

We see lightning as a sudden, powerful surge of electricity that zigzags from the clouds to the ground. This deadly stroke heats the air to a temperature of 15,000 degrees Celsius the same as the surface of the Sun. Above the clouds, lightning is colourful - mainly red and blue - and spreads out to cover large areas of the upper atmosphere. Sometimes it even reaches the edge of outer space.

Over the last few years, scientists from the Danish National Space Centre have placed cameras on mountain tops to study the elves and sprites. However, it would be much easier to detect these flashes and study their effect on the atmosphere if instruments could be placed in space.

The Danish experts are now looking at the possibility of developing a number of instruments - known as the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor - that could be flown on the ISS.

Such instruments would help scientists to understand how the flashes are created and how often they take place. They would also answer a key question that affects all of us do elves and sprites remove ozone from the atmosphere, and so influence our climate?