In pictures: An astronomer captured impressive new observations of red sprites

The elusive red streaks dimly lit the night sky, making it look like a painting.
Chris Young
Red sprites over Chile.
Red sprites over Chile.

Source: ESO 

That's not a render or a painting. That's a real image of the night sky, and those red streaks are an impressive and elusive phenomenon known as "red sprites".

Astronomer Zdenek Bardon captured images of the rare phenomenon known as red sprites using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) La Silla Observatory in Chile, a press statement reveals.

Red sprites are red streaks that appear above storm clouds. As CNET reports, the first photographic evidence of the rarely-sighted phenomenon came in 1989. Now, Bardon's new image, shared as the ESO's picture of the week, shows them in impressive new detail.

How are red streaks formed in the sky?

Sprites are part of a group of lightning-like phenomena given named derived from fantasy. Other examples include elves and giant jets. Sprites typically occur high in Earth's atmosphere, sometimes as high as 55 miles (90 km) in altitude.

They are large-scale electric discharges that occur high above clouds during thunderstorms. They are usually triggered by the discharges of regular lightning. However, sprites lack the hot channel temperatures of tropospheric lightning, meaning they are not simply lightning bolts firing out towards space. They are also much harder to observe than typical lightning.

"In addition to occurring much higher in the sky than regular lightning, they are cooler than the white lightning we usually see and appear much fainter," ESO explained in its statement.

Uncovering phenomena in the night sky

The ESO capture (above) looks almost like a painting or a computer render of the night sky, with mountains stretching off into the distance and a green airglow low in the night sky. The red streaks look almost like blasts of magma coming from a volcano.

Sprites have also been observed from the International Space Station, as can be seen in the image below. High altitudes are, for obvious reasons, the ideal location from which to capture the red glowing streaks.

In pictures: An astronomer captured impressive new observations of red sprites
A red sprite captured from the International Space Station (ISS). It is the faint red glow above the light.

Source: NASA 

"Because of its high altitude and lack of light pollution," the ESO explained, "La Silla is perfect for capturing these unusual phenomena." The photograph was taken at the platform of ESO's 3.6m telescope in Chile's Atacama desert.

Imaging technology is so ubiquitous that famous Harvard professor Avi Loeb wants to use it to search for, investigate, and even capture a high-resolution image of a UFOs as part of his Galileo Project. While it's uncertain what the results of that project will be, it will likely also uncover fascinating new imagery of phenomena such as red sprites, which may sometimes have, unsurprisingly, been mistaken for an otherworldly glow.

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