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On 6th July 1989, physicists from the University of Minnesota test out a new low-light camera they plan to use for a high altitude rocket experiment. They point the camera East at some stars and what looks like a distant thunderstorm. When playing the tape back something catches their attention, two funnel-shaped flashes of light lasting just a few thousandths of a second. The team estimates that the flashes are 20 miles above the clouds and an astonishing 12 miles tall. By pure chance they’ve accidentally captured the first image of what would subsequently become known as a “sprite”.
Sprites are large-scale electrical discharges that occur high above thunderstorm clouds, or cumulonimbus, giving rise to a quite varied range of visual shapes flickering in the night sky. They are triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground.
Clip taken from the Naked Science documentary “Lightning”.
Watch it here – Coming soon!