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Blue jet
An image captured from the International Space Station shows an electrical discharge known as a blue jet shooting up toward space from a cloud. (ESA / NASA Photo / Andreas Mogensen)

For years, scientists have been piecing together evidence of peculiar phenomena known as red sprites, blue jets, pixies and elves – exotic types of electrical discharges that emanate from thunderstorms.

Just one week after his arrival on the International Space Station, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured the best evidence that blue jets exist. Mogensen’s 160-second video documented 245 blue flashes as the space station flew 250 miles above the Bay of Bengal.

Now the findings have been published in Geophysical Research Letters. “According to the researchers, this is the first time they’ve ever seen this blue lightning shoot up like that,” Mogensen said.

The video also shows a spidery tangle of red sprites flashing upward from the clouds. Satellites have documented such phenomena before, but Mogensen had much better view of the discharges.

Close study of the discharges, known as transient luminous events, could help scientists understand more fully how the atmosphere serves as a shield against space radiation.

“It is not every day that you get to capture a new weather phenomenon on film, so I am very pleased with the result – but even more so that researchers will be able to investigate these intriguing thunderstorms in more detail soon,” Mogensen said today in a report from the European Space Agency.

Mogensen is referring to the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, or ASIM, an ESA experiment that’s slated for installation on the exterior of the space station’s Columbus module later this year.

ASIM’s primary mission is to monitor thunderstorms continuously for transient luminous events – and watch for even more mysterious gamma ray flashes that have been detected in the upper atmosphere.

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