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Astronaut on the ISS snaps a photo of lightning that strikes UPWARDS 

An astronaut on board the International Space Station (ISS) has posted a stunning photo of what could be a ‘blue starter’ – a rare type of lightning that strikes upwards. 

The European Space Agency’s Thomas Pesquet – one of 10 humans aboard the space station right now as it it orbits 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth – captured the shot on September 9 but has only just posted it online.  

The ethereal blue glow, seen over Europe during a thunder strike, is a ‘transient luminous event’, also known as upper-atmospheric lightning. 

These bright, unpredictable flashes of light typically form on our planet about 60 miles above large thunderstorms, creating flares that last just milliseconds. 

Image posted online by Thomas Pesquet shows the ethereal blue transient luminous event in the upper atmosphere over Europe

BLUE JETS AND BLUE STARTERS 

A blue jet is a lightning discharge that reaches upwards through the stratosphere.

A blue starter is shorter and brighter than a blue jet, but is also upwards-moving.

‘Blue starters appear to be blue jets that never quite make it,’ said Dr Victor P. Pasko, associate professor of electrical engineering at Penn State. 

The newly-released photo is a single frame taken from a longer timelapse. 

‘A single frame from a timelapse over Europe, showing a thunder strike with a transient luminous event in the upper atmosphere,’ Pesquet said on Flickr

‘This is a very rare occurrence and we have a facility outside Europe’s Columbus laboratory dedicated to observing these flashes of light.  

‘What is fascinating about this lightning is that just a few decades ago they had been observed anecdotally by pilots and scientists were not convinced they actually existed.’

The ISS, which is 357.5 feet wide and 239.4 feet in length, completes an entire orbit around the Earth once every 90 minutes.

Pesquet – who is currently on his second stint at the ISS – said it is extremely well suited for capturing such shots as it flies over the equator where there are more thunderstorms. 

Although Pesquet didn’t specifically state what sort of transient luminous event it was, it could be a blue jet – a lightning discharge that reaches upwards through the stratosphere.

Thomas Pesquet, pictured here in 2020 prior to his second stint aboard the ISS, is one of 10 humans aboard the space station right now

Thomas Pesquet, pictured here in 2020 prior to his second stint aboard the ISS, is one of 10 humans aboard the space station right now

The International Space Station (ISS, pictured), which is 357.5 feet wide and 239.4 feet in length, completes an entire orbit around the Earth once every 90 minutes

The International Space Station (ISS, pictured), which is 357.5 feet wide and 239.4 feet in length, completes an entire orbit around the Earth once every 90 minutes

It could also be a blue starter – a phenomenon closely related to blue jets, except for the fact they’re shorter and brighter. 

‘Blue starters appear to be blue jets that never quite make it,’ said Dr Victor P. Pasko, associate professor of electrical engineering at Penn State. 

MailOnline has contacted NASA regarding a conclusive classification for the event. 

Many transient luminous events that occur on Earth during thunderstorms are described using a range of fantastical names, including elves, sprites and trolls – but these are acronyms for technical terms. 

On Earth, elves, sprites and trolls appear reddish in colour due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere.

The late experimental physicist John Winckler accidentally discovered sprites, while helping to test a new low-light video camera in 1989. 

On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in colour due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere

On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in colour due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere

They appear as vertical streaks above thunderstorms at an altitude of about 24 to 55 miles (40 to 90 kilometers), and can resemble a jellyfish with long tendrils flowing down toward the ground.

Although they typically grow a bright red on Earth, on Jupiter they appear as a glowing blue, as show by images from NASA’s Juno spacecraft showed last year.  

Elves, meanwhile, appear as a flattened disk glowing in Earth’s upper atmosphere up to 200 miles across the sky.

These occur high above energetic cloud-to-ground lightning of positive or negative polarity, and were 

Confirmed in 1992 by a camera on the ISS, elves occur high above energetic cloud-to-ground lightning of positive or negative polarity.  

WHAT ARE ‘RED SPRITES’?

Red sprites are electrical bursts of light that occur above highly active thunderstorms.

They can be seen in the D region of the ionosphere – the area just above the dense lower atmosphere, about 37 to 56 miles above the Earth.

They show up red at higher altitudes and fade to blue at lower heights.

Atmospheric sprites have been known for nearly a century, but their origins were a mystery.

They only last a few milliseconds and are relatively dim compared with other lightning.

The late experimental physicist John Winckler accidentally discovered sprites, while helping to test a new low-light video camera in 1989.

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