Seeing Sprites

Six years ago I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the release of a secret Ministry of Defence report on ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ (UAP). The study, codenamed ‘Project Condign‘, concluded that UAPs – as the MoD’s Defence Intelligence Staff preferred to call UFOs – existed but were most likely a type of poorly understood atmospheric plasma related to ball lightning.

A rare image of a red ‘sprite’ captured by astronauts on the ISS in April 2012 (Credot: NASA Johnson Space Centre)/

Press coverage of the report’s conclusions was superficial (a typical headline was ‘Sorry ET, you’re just a puff of plasma’ – The Sunday Times, 7 May 2006). UFOlogists and believers in extraterrestrial craft were unimpressed, with most dismissing the report as a ‘whitewash’.

But since 2006 evidence that some, if not all, the ‘unidentified’ UFOs are indeed types of atmospheric plasmas keeps piling up. One intriguing article was published by the Science Daily on 14 August under the title ‘Seeing Sprites: Researchers catch glimpses of electromagnetic bursts high in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

An extract follows:

“High above the clouds during thunderstorms, some 50 miles above Earth a different kind of lightning dances. Bursts of red and blue light, known as “sprites,” flash for a scant one thousandth of a second. They are often only visible to those in flight above a storm, and happen so quickly you might not even see it unless you chance to be looking directly at it. One hard-to-reach place that gets a good view of sprites is the International Space Station. On April 30, 2012, astronauts on the ISS captured the signature red flash of a sprite, offering the world and researchers a rare opportunity to observe one.

Indeed, sprites are so hard to catch on film, that pilots had claimed to see them for almost a century before scientists at the University of Minnesota accidentally caught one on camera in July of 1989. Since then, researchers aboard planes have occasionally snapped a shot, but it continues to be difficult to methodically film them. So a group of scientists, along with help from Japan’s NHK television, sought them out regularly for two weeks in the summer of 2011.

Filming at 10,000 frames per second on two separate jets, the team recorded some of the best movies of sprites ever taken — movies that can be used to study this poorly understood phenomenon and the forces that create them. By filming from two jets flying 12 miles apart, the team mapped out the 3-dimensional nature of the sprites. Ground-based measurements rounded out the picture.

During those two weeks, the scientists hopped into their planes in Denver, Colo. each evening and chased storm clouds. Just figuring out which direction to fly next was a full time job, assigned to a single person with a computer watching the weather systems. Once a plane found a hot zone of sprites, however, they often lucked into filming numerous sprites in a row. The sprite’s first flash is usually followed by a break up into numerous streamers of light — figuring out what causes this divergence is one of the key things researchers will try to understand from these films.”

You can see still images and footage of sprites on the phys.org website here.  Like other types of UAP, scientists believe sprites are related to lightning, in this case in the form of an electrical discharge 50 miles above thunderstorms. A fact that explains why it took so long for sprites to be identified and categorised.

Science Daily makes the valid point that the weather we experience on the surface of the planet is often considered to be entirely separate from the weather higher up in the atmosphere on the edge of space. In fact as the research on sprites demonstrates, ‘some fundamental science connects these two regions, opening physics questions about the interchange of energy between them.’

If the two regions are interconnected, then it follows that UAPs observed in our atmosphere (commonly known as UFOs) might be related to UAPs in the mesosphere – 50 km above the Earth’s surface. Indeed it seems likely that atmospheric plasmas related to sprites and other energetic phenomenon in the middle atmosphere may be the source of some classic and unidentified ‘UFO’ reports made by the pilots of civilian and military aircraft since the advent of high altitude flights in the mid-20th century. For more on UAPs, Project Condign  and related atmospheric phenomena see my page here.

Meanwhile, the National Archives of Australia are continuing to follow Britain’s lead with the release of a stream of files on UAPs reported down under. In August a file with-held for 30 years revealed details of an incident that was probably the closest the Royal Australian Air Force has come to scrambling fighter jets to intercept a UAP.

The alert was sounded after air traffic controllers tracked strange phenomena on radars at Sydney airport in June 1983. They watched targets located to the north of the city moving at ‘alleged speeds of 1100-6500 km/h that suggested high altitude.’ Three RAAF officers were sent to investigate, with instructions to scramble Mirage jets ‘if a reasonable chance of interception presented itself.’

But what was called Operation Close Encounter ended when a Squadron Leader K. Keenan checked whether the radar blips could have been caused by ‘unusual atmospheric conditions’. Seasoned UFOlogists (and fighter controllers) will be aware that such phenomena are a common explanation for UFOs on radar. ‘Radar angels’ were a hazard for early air defence radar systems in the US and UK until some were identified as migrating birds and others as anomalous propagation and other meteorological phenomena (see my article Radar Angels). This type of ‘angel’ – a temperature inversion that creates fast-moving phantom targets on radar screens – was invoked by the USAF to explain the ‘flap’ over Washington DC in 1952 and other classic UFO ‘radar/visuals’ such as the phenomena observed at RAF Bentwaters/Lakenheath in 1956 may have similar explanations.

The Australian files reveal that even during the 1980s some air defence personnel were unfamiliar with the appearance and behaviour of ‘radar angels.’ Keenan’s report reveals the costly RAAF operation could have been avoided by a simple check ‘across the width of an entire corridor’. He said tests showed the radar UFOs reported by Sydney airport ‘were generated entirely by radar interference known colloquially as “running rabbits”’. And his report shows that military personnel are just as susceptible to UFO fever as your average enthusiast. His conclusion reads dryly: ‘Fortunately there was no temptation to launch aircraft and add to the fuel bill occasioned by use of the RAAF Datsun.

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2 Responses to Seeing Sprites

  1. Ross says:

    We know so terrifyingly little about our planet: its atmosphere, its oceans, even the land we live on. It might as well be an alien world.

  2. alanborky says:

    ‘scientists believe sprites are related to lightning, in this case in the form of an electrical discharge 50 miles above thunderstorms. A fact that explains why it took so long for sprites to be identified and categorised.’

    I’d suggest it helps many lab bound scientists don’t trust the expertise of those in other fields eg hundreds if not thousands of years of reports by highly experienced sailors and almost a centuries worth of airpilot reports all of whom could quite easily die if they started mistaking Venus for spaceships etc.

    ‘“sprites,” flash for a scant one thousandth of a second…are often only visible to those in flight above a storm, and happen so quickly you might not even see it unless you chance to be looking directly at it.’

    Given how hard they are to spot and even film Isn’t it about time then some sort of credit to their acute observational powers be extended to the sailors and pilots who’ve been spotting these things for so long instead of the usual guff about the worthlessness of their anecdotal data to science.

    ‘it seems likely that atmospheric plasmas related to sprites and other energetic phenomenon in the middle atmosphere may be the source of some classic and unidentified ‘UFO’ reports made by the pilots’.

    Agreed but now we’re not only back to not trusting the expertise and experienced perceptions of those in ‘non-scientific’ fields but we’re reaching for phenomena neither pilots’ve reported or scientists’ve described.

    ‘The Australian files reveal that even during the 1980s some air defence personnel were unfamiliar with the appearance and behaviour of ‘radar angels.’’

    Or at least according to Keenan they weren’t [was Australia really such a backwater in the Eighties they still hadn’t trained people in hazards known from the earliest days of radar?].

    I once asked my police sergeant father-in-law about a report of a copper claiming a sighting of a mysterious light in the sky was only the moon. He told me “That was just some lazy bastard who couldn’t be bothered to drive out his way to check out the report and if he’d’ve been on my shift he’d’ve got a serious arse kicking!” Apparently this’s an age old gadge used by lazy coppers and I guarantee you new versions of the story’ll periodically appear in the media until the end of time.

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