Space station astronaut captures rare, ethereal lightning flash in upper

The round blue glow is a “transient luminous event” seen from the ISS in September 2021.

ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet

“Transient luminous event” sounds like a euphemism for a ghost, but it’s actually a beautiful phenomenon that can sometimes be seen from the International Space Station. European Space Agency astronaut and current ISS resident Thomas Pesquet shared a view of an ethereal blue glow emerging over Europe.

Transient luminous events are caused by upper-atmospheric lightning. This one happened in early September and Pesquet tweeted about it this week, calling it “a very rare occurrence.”

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The ISS is in a perfect position to study the colorful events, which are described using a series of fantastical names, including elves, sprites and giants. Keen-eyed photographers have even been able to capture them from the ground, as with these fantastic views of red sprites shared in 2017. 

“What is fascinating about this lightning is that just a few decades ago they had been observed anecdotally by pilots and scientists were not convinced they actually existed,” Pesquet said on Flickr. “Fast forward a few years and we can confirm elves, and sprites are very real and could be influencing our climate too!”

Pesquet’s image represents a single frame from a time-lapse taken from the station. The image would be a beauty just for the way it shows the curve of Earth and the twinkling lights of Europe below. The transient luminous event captured at its finest moment takes it to the next level.

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