Blue and red lightning bolts shooting upwards from high altitude clouds have been observed from the International Space Station and recorded on video: Blue jets studied from Space Station – ESA

Screen capture from video of blue jet of lightning as seen from the ISS.

For years, their existence has been debated: elusive electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere that sport names such as red sprites, blue jets, pixies and elves. Reported by pilots, they are difficult to study as they occur above thunderstorms.

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen during his mission on the International Space Station in 2015 was asked to take pictures over thunderstorms with the most sensitive camera on the orbiting outpost to look for these brief features.

Denmark’s National Space Institute has now published the results, confirming many kilometre-wide blue flashes around 18 km altitude, including a pulsating blue jet reaching 40 km. A video recorded by Andreas as he flew over the Bay of Bengal at 28 800 km/h on the Station shows the electrical phenomena clearly – a first of its kind.

The Station’s low orbit makes it an ideal platform from which to observe and study these unusual electrical atmospheric phenomena. In the video below,

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen explains the phenomena he filmed over India from the International Space Station’s Cupola observatory in September 2015 during his postflight tour at ESA’s technical heart ESTEC in The Netherlands.

The film shows lightning illuminating clouds and recently discovered phenomena called blue jets and Red Sprites.

As part of his 10-day mission Andreas performed an experiment called Thor after the god of thunder, lightning and storms in Nordic mythology. Initiated by the Technical University of Denmark, Thor had Andreas test a new thundercloud imaging system that looks at the electrification of lighting.

Researchers are particularly interested in newly-discovered lights that occur in the upper atmosphere during thunderstorms called red sprites, blue jets and elves. Sprites last 20 milliseconds at most, and to capture them on camera is a real challenge. They received their name because of their elusive nature. Blue jets are found up to 50 km altitude with Red Sprites occurring between 60-80 km altitude.

Andreas received the coordinates of a few possible thunderstorms together with the times and instructions on which lens, filter and camera settings to use.

Some of the most violent electric discharges are very difficult to capture from the ground because the atmosphere blocks radiation. Apart from covering all the main thunderstorm regions, the International Space Station brings scientists as close as possible to the electric phenomena. Its great vantage point has the lowest orbit available for observation at around 400 km altitude – imaging satellites mostly operate at 800 km.

Read more about Andreas’s iriss mission: