NASA calls on the global public to help it document weird phenomena in the sky

"Spritacular needs your help!"
Chris Young
Red sprites captured by La Silla Observatory, Chile.
Red sprites captured by La Silla Observatory, Chile.


NASA is calling on citizen scientists to help it collect data on the elusive, mysterious phenomena known as red sprites.

Red sprites are impressive red streaks of light that usually occur over storms and reach as high as 55 miles (90 km) into the atmosphere. They're like a form of inverse lightning and form part of a group of lightning-like phenomena given names derived from fantasy — other examples include elves and giant jets.

The U.S. space agency believes many people may have unwittingly captured the phenomenon on camera and that their images could contribute to ground-breaking science. In a bid to collect this data, it has announced it is forming a new citizen science project called Spritacular (pronounced sprite-tacular).

The first crowdsourced database of sprites

NASA's new citizen science project aims to connect professional scientists with members of the public willing to share photographs they've taken on their phones or digital cameras that may feature evidence of sprites or other Transient Luminous Events (TLEs).

“People capture wonderful images of sprites, but they're shared sporadically over the internet and most of the scientific community is unaware of these captures,” explained Dr. Burcu Kosar, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and Spritacular principal investigator. “Spritacular will bridge this gap by creating the first crowdsourced database of sprites and other TLEs that is accessible and readily available for scientific research.”

Sprites typically occur only moments after a lightning strike and they appear in various forms of red flashes, some of which look like tendrils reaching out into the night sky. The first sprite caught on camera was captured in 1989 and scientists still to this day know very little about how and why they form.

Earlier this year, astronomer Zdenek Bardon captured an image of red sprites using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) La Silla Observatory in Chile — that image, which was selected as the ESO's image of the month, is shown above.

NASA calls on the global public to help it document weird phenomena in the sky
A red sprite captured from the International Space Station.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have also captured images of sprites on more than one occasion. The image above, for example, was taken in 2015 by members of the orbital station's Expedition 44 Crew.

'Spritacular needs your help'

In its statement announcing the Spritacular project, NASA wrote that "the broader goal of Spritacular is to foster a mutual exchange between observers of TLEs and the scientific community and to inspire citizen scientists all around the world to participate in the investigation of these elusive events."

The space agency explained that it will give proper credit to any photographers who capture images of sprites used in any ensuing scientific paper — and the photographers may also be listed as co-authors, "depending on the level of contribution."

NASA also outlined some of the scientific community's biggest unknowns regarding sprites and other TLEs. The space agency stated that we don't know how often sprites occur or why they take the shapes they do. We also don't know the conditions in the upper atmosphere that make sprites occur, and whether they affect the Earth's global electric circuit.

Another important question to take into account, according to NASA, is how sprites are linked with gravity waves that ripple through the upper atmosphere. NASA points out that "answering these questions could lead to major advances in the science of Earth’s upper atmosphere. But to get there, Spritacular needs your help!"

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