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Off Track: Lightning Strikes Up

March 6, 2021
Credit: International Gemini Observatory / NOIRLab / NSF /AURA / A. Smith

From the NOIRLab website

A webcam atop Maunakea in Hawaii captured a singular moment: Upward-shooting red sprite & blue jet lightning to the right, the Gemini North observatory to the left, the handle of the Big Dipper in the distance. 

The telescopes at Maunakea sit calmly beneath a sky filled with extraordinary light. Amongst these telescopes is Gemini North, the northern member of the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab. Gemini North sits at an altitude of around 4200 meters (13,800 feet). Not only does this altitude facilitate world-class astronomical observations, but Gemini North’s nighttime Cloud Cams were able to capture the extraordinary light phenomena seen on the right side of the image.

The column of blue and red lights surrounded by a bright blaze of white light appears so otherworldly that it looks like it must be a special effect. This breathtaking image, however, is entirely real. It features two lightning phenomena: a red sprite and a blue jet.

Red sprites and blue jets are distinctive because of their colors, and also the direction in which they strike. As you can see in this image, the red and blue lights are shooting up from the top of the cloud deck, and are striking out towards space, instead of down towards the Earth. It is extremely rare to capture these phenomena on camera and even more so from this unique perspective.


National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory) is the preeminent US national center for ground-based, nighttime optical and infrared astronomy. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) operates these facilities and NSF’s NOIRLab under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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