Watch: Red sprites dance over Maunakea on Big Island
February 27, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
* Updated February 27, 2:10 PM
The hits keep coming from the Subaru-Asahi Star Camera at the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea on the Big Island, but this time it wasn’t from out of this world.
It was meteorological — and mythical.
Keen viewers of the live streaming camera that keeps an eye on the sky 24 hours a day were treated to a phenomenon straight out of a fantasy. On Feb. 5, large-scale electrical discharges called red sprites briefly — and we mean briefly — danced before their eyes. Each flash, also called lightning sprites, spanned just a fraction of a second.
“This is REALLY a momentary phenomenon,” the description accompanying the video says.
The first part of the video posted on the Star Camera’s YouTube channel is slowed down to a quarter of the original speed and the second part is zoomed in and even slower at one-tenth of the speed to give viewers a better look. You can see the red flashes flare almost in unison with lightning from a distant thunderstorm at the bottom left corner of the video.
While associated with thunderstorms, which were moving over the Big Island that day, red sprites are not born in the same clouds as their lightning cousin. Thunderstorms and the lightning they produce, like all weather on the planet, happen in the troposphere, the lowest part of Earth’s atmosphere that extends 4 to 12 miles up from the surface.
These luminous red-orange flashes happen above thunderstorm clouds in the mesosphere, sometimes up to 60 miles from the cloud top. They also don’t strike down to the ground. Instead, they reach toward space.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Severe Storms Laboratory explains that sprites are part of a colorful and fantastical spectrum of transient luminous events that occur high in the atmosphere. Other such events include blue jets and elves. There also are trolls and gnomes, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Unlike lightning, these fleeting red flashes that get their color from excited nitrogen are not very bright and can only be observed at night. While not often seen by the human eye, the sprites are more elusive than truly rare because they have mastered the art of brevity, lasting for just one-tenth of a second.
“That’s what makes hunting for sprites so tough,” said Matthew Cappucci, a meteorologist with the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post in a 2019 article. “Blink and you’ll miss them.”
What they lack in longevity they make up in size, with some spanning up to 30 miles across. Red sprites are described as resembling jellyfish, carrots or columns.
Fun fact: Sporadic reports of the flashy phenom go back to the late 19th century. Pilots in the 20th century would sometimes report lightning above storms for many years before researchers documented sprites and other transient luminous events with sensitive video cameras. It wasn’t until 1989 when red sprites were caught on film and not until 1994 when the name “sprite” was used in literature for the first time.
It was Davis Sentman, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska who proposed the name “sprite” for the flashes because the term fit their appearance and originated from their “fairy-like qualities.” Sprite is “a term that is succinct and whimsically evocative of their fleeting nature.”
Despite still not being well understood, red sprites have been photographed and videoed thousands of times since. They have been observed over North America, Central and South America, Europe, Central Africa (Zaire), Australia, the Sea of Japan and Asia, according to Wikipedia.
The most recent red sprite sighting is just one of several events captured by the Star Camera and new discoveries made by Big Island observatories in an already busy year for spectacular sky scenes over Hawai‘i. Earth also had a flyby at the beginning of February from a rare green comet that hadn’t paid our solar system a visit for 50,000 years.
Editor’s Note: What’s been your favorite phenomenon? The blue swirl? How about the green laser light show? Or was it the comet? Let us know by voting in our poll and maybe even leave a comment as to why. Plus, keep an eye on Big Island Now for additional astronomy news throughout this week.