Mysterious Jets of Upside-Down Lightning Are Real, And We Just Got Our Best Look Yet
One of the most powerful and fascinating forces of nature is born of storms: great cracks of light that part the sky, flicking vast amounts of electricity into the surrounding atmosphere, cracking into the ground whenever it reaches it.
Or that’s how we typically think of lightning.
But the phenomenon has another manifestation, only relatively recently revealed: sometimes, it erupts upwards from the clouds, lashing into the stratosphere in a tremendous blue ‘jet’ of electricity.
Little is known about this phenomenon; it’s unpredictable and occurs beyond the sight of most people, above a layer of storm clouds.
But, thanks to a citizen scientist, one such giant jet was recorded above the clouds during a storm in Oklahoma in 2018 – and, with data collected by other instruments, scientists have been able to study it in detail in three dimensions.
The result gives us new details on this strange phenomenon, which should contribute to a better understanding of how and why it happens.
“We were able to map this gigantic jet in three dimensions with really high-quality data,” said physicist and engineer Levi Boggs of the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
“We were able to see very high frequency (VHF) sources above the cloud top, which had not been seen before with this level of detail. Using satellite and radar data, we were able to learn where the very hot leader portion of the discharge was located above the cloud.”
Captured on a low-light Watec camera on the night of 14 May 2018, the lightning jet was enormous, a huge discharge that was clearly visible in the footage captured.
When Boggs learnt of the footage, he immediately went looking for data from other instruments that may have captured the event. And there was a bonanza.
The Watec video of the lightning jet. (Kevin Palivec)
The jet was in range of and had been recorded by a nearby VHF lightning mapping system called the Lightning Mapping Array, two NCEI Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) locations, and instruments on NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).
This wealth of data meant that Boggs and his colleagues were able to conduct an in-depth analysis reconstructing the complexities of the bolt.
“The fact that the gigantic jet was detected by several systems, including the Lightning Mapping Array and two geostationary optical lightning instruments, was a unique event and gives us a lot more information on gigantic jets,” said physicist and engineer Doug Mach of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).
“More importantly, this is probably the first time that a gigantic jet has been three-dimensionally mapped above the clouds with the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) instrument set.”
The data revealed that the jet was, truly, a colossus. It propagated from clouds with a maximum altitude of about 8 kilometers (5 miles) to altitudes around ten times that height – nearly as far as the Kármán line, where Earth’s atmosphere ends and outer space begins.
As it did so, it transported around 300 coulombs of electrical charge into the upper atmosphere; a typical cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground lightning bolt only transports around 5 coulombs.
The team was also able to ascertain that the leaders – the channels of ionized air along which the lightning discharge can be seen – were extremely hot, over 4,700 degrees Celsius (8,500 Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, the smaller plasma streamers were significantly cooler, around 200 degrees Celsius (400 Fahrenheit).
These streamers started propagating just above the cloud top, the team found, traveling to the lower ionosphere, at an altitude of around 80 kilometers. This creates an electrical connection between the cloud tops and the ionosphere, transferring a negative charge at a rate of thousands of amperes per second.
The different instruments revealed that the optical component of the jet remained relatively close to the cloud top, at an altitude of 15 to 20 kilometers. The VHF emission, however, was detected much higher, at altitudes of 22 to 45 kilometers.
“The VHF and optical signals definitively confirmed what researchers had suspected but not yet proven, that the VHF radio from lightning is emitted by small structures called streamers that are at the very tip of the developing lightning, while the strongest electric current flows significantly behind this tip in an electrically conducting channel called a leader,” said engineer Steve Cummer of Duke University.
However, a lot of questions yet remain. It’s still unclear why jets shoot upwards when most lightning is directed down, or sideways. The researchers believe that there may be something blocking the lightning from traveling downwards or towards other clouds.
Although the Oklahoma storm was not the usual type associated with jets, as it occurred at high latitudes, rather than the tropics, and occurred at an unusual time of year, it could yield a clue here. Very little downward lightning was observed before the release of the giant jet.
“For whatever reason, there is usually a suppression of cloud-to-ground discharges,” Boggs explained.
“There is a buildup of negative charge, and then we think that the conditions in the storm top weaken the uppermost charge layer, which is usually positive. In the absence of the lightning discharges we normally see, the gigantic jet may relieve the buildup of excess negative charge in the cloud.”
Let’s hope future jets contain the answers.
The research has been published in Science Advances.
Alien space debris stuck in Earth’s orbit, researchers say
Recently, a group of experts from Harvard University, led by physics
professor Avi Loeb, announced the possible presence of alien space
debris in Earth’s orbit, reports the Daily Star.
space research expert Professor Loeb is confident that the discovery of
such “interstellar objects could help expand our knowledge of possible
alien civilizations and technologies. A team of scientists is conducting
research to confirm that some of the objects in our orbit may be
connected to other star systems.
During an interview with Live
Science, Professor Loeb explained that these objects could enter the
solar system from interstellar space, defying Jupiter’s gravitational
pull and occupying limited orbits around the sun.
Some of them may
have technological origins similar to the probes sent by mankind into
interstellar space, such as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, Pioneer 10 and 11
and New Horizons.
despite these interesting assumptions, Professor Loeb did not specify
what specific objects he was talking about. In his research report, he
notes that there could be “a significant number” of potentially
detectable objects in Earth’s orbit.
To confirm their assumptions,
the team of scientists uses computer simulations and the Vera Rubin
Observatory (Chile) with a high-resolution camera of 3.2 billion pixels.
This will allow for regular observations of the Southern sky and the
possibility of detecting several captured objects about the size of a
It is assumed that these interstellar objects passed through the
boundaries of the solar system and may carry unique information about
other civilizations and their technologies. If we could confirm the
origin of these objects, the mysteries that open before us, this would
be a real breakthrough in space exploration.
expresses hope that the new research will not only help expand our
knowledge of extraterrestrial technologies, but may also lead to the
discovery of new alien civilizations . Answers to such questions can be
of global significance and influence our understanding of the place of
mankind in the Universe.
while there are still many questions and assumptions, the study by
Professor Loeb and his team opens a new chapter in space exploration.
Each new discovery can be the key to deciphering the mysteries of the
cosmos and the possibility of encountering alien life forms.
Betelgeuse is acting strange again
Betelgeuse, a red giant on the brink of death, continues to show
unusual behavior. After the Great Blackout, which occurred in late 2019
and early 2020, the star became unusually bright. It is now the seventh
brightest star in the sky, while it normally ranks tenth. This has led
to speculation that Betelgeuse is preparing to explode in a
spectacularly large supernova.
However, scientists believe it’s too early to tell, and it’s likely
that this behavior is due to ongoing fluctuations after the Great
Blackout of 2019, and the star will return to normal within a decade.
Betelgeuse is one of the most interesting stars in the sky. It is
about 700 light-years from Earth and is a red giant in the last stage of
its life. It is also an unusual star for a red giant because it was
previously a monster blue-white O-type star, the most massive class of
Betelgeuse has changed its spectral type because it has almost
exhausted its hydrogen reserves. It now burns helium into carbon and
oxygen and has expanded to a gigantic size: about 764 times the size of
the Sun and about 16.5 to 19 times its mass.
Eventually it will run out of fuel to burn, become a supernova, eject
its outer material, and its core will collapse into a neutron star.
Before the Great Blackout, Betelgeuse also had periodic fluctuations
in brightness. The longest of these cycles is about 5.9 years and the
other is 400 days. But it seems that the Great Blackout caused changes
in these oscillations.
A new paper by astrophysicist Morgan McLeod of the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has shown that the 400-day
cycle appears to have been halved. This pulsational cycle is probably
caused by expansion and contraction within the star. According to
simulations carried out by MacLeod and his colleagues, the convective
flow inside Betelgeuse may have risen and become material that separates
from the star.
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