A stunning image of a lightning strike over Kuwait was taken in December of last year by one of the astronauts on the International Space Station and today the photo was released by the NASA Earth Observatory. Recently the Space Station installed a new instrument that will help astronauts to study the physics and composition of lightning bolts in detail.
It is thought that bolts of lightning flash across the atmosphere of the earth as many as 50 times per second. This adds up to around 4.3 million times a day and 1.5 billion times in a year. NASA officials wrote an image description “Some of those strikes emit gamma radiation — a type of radiation more commonly associated with exploding stars and nuclear fusion — in bursts known as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs).”
The scientists will be able to use new lighting imagery along with data from the International Space Station to determine the triggers of lightning in storms and also what the cause behind the TGFs is.
“The fact that TGFs exist at all is amazing,” Doug Rowland, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre involved in this new lighting research, said in a statement. “The electron and gamma-ray energies in TGFs are usually the domain of nuclear explosions, solar flares, and supernovas. What a surprise to find them shooting out of the cold upper atmosphere of our own planet.”
The researchers think that TFGs could be related to the enigmatic red bursts of lightning that have the name of Red Sprites. These typically travel upward from a thunderstorm and they often have shapes that resemble jellyfish. The Red Sprites are one of many types of lighting that the researches are working on right now to get an understanding of the origin of. In general there is a lot about lightning that remains a mystery and scientists are not one hundred percent sure how lightning is formed. The theory is that it happens when an updraft of warm air gets to a height where the temperature is only just above freezing. It is at this point that ice crystals react with frozen particles and produce the electric charge separation. When this separation is great enough, it is thought that an electrical breakdown happens and this is seen in the form of the lighting flash.