THE GREAT SPRITES CHASE

THE GREAT SPRITES CHASE

A NASA scientist and night-sky fanatic chase the elusive lights across Oklahoma.
The odds are not in their favor.

By Lina Tran

It wasn’t dark enough. We’d driven east for two hours from Oklahoma City, and still, a stubborn red light blinked from a nearby wind farm. Paul Smith sighed with frustration and drove on. When we left the hotel earlier that night, just two stars blinked in the sky. Light from a gas station and bowling alley, and, farther away, the bright halo of the city, outshone the rest. With each passing mile, past fields and onto tumbling dirt roads, more stars wriggled into focus. The city haze shrunk in the rearview mirror, and the sky darkened. But it wouldn’t do for Smith, who wanted the darkest skies he could find.

Smith is a night-sky fanatic and photographer. His obsession is sprites: immense jolts of light that flicker high above thunderstorms. Last October, he guided NASA scientist Dr. Burcu Kosar through the backroads of Oklahoma to catch one herself. Although she’d studied sprites for more than 15 years, she hadn’t yet chased one. My colleague Joy Ng and I, members of NASA’s communications team, tagged along for the ride.

Aside from their fleeting nature, sprites have little in common with their fairy-like namesakes. The towering sparks materialize around 45 miles above the ground or higher (most commercial airplanes fly at an altitude of five to seven miles). The clusters can stretch 10 miles across and 30 miles top to bottom. They take on complex shapes. “They’re like snowflakes; none are identical,” Kosar said. There are carrot sprites that look like a bunch pulled right out of the ground, tops, roots, and all. There are column sprites, majestic angels, and the white whale of sprite-chasing: jellyfish.

Sprites are elusive, but regular features of our skies. They have been detected over land and sea alike across most of the globe. Triggered by lightning, they appear at the boundary between the atmosphere and space. 

But for something so widespread, many questions surround the science of sprites, such as how they affect the upper atmosphere and Earth’s global electric circuit. Sprites briefly alter the electrically charged layers of the upper atmosphere, which is home to communications signals like radio. Changes there can disrupt those signals.  

Intricate red lights hover a field. A windmill rises in the background.
Credit: Copyright Paul Smith

By gathering images of the slippery phenomena from sprite-chasers, Kosar, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, hopes researchers can use this ground-based data to shed light on some of these questions. Her new citizen science project, Spritacular, invites sprite-chasers like Smith from around the globe to share their observations. The goal is to build a community where researchers and citizen scientists can share information and construct the first crowd-sourced sprite database. 

Sprite-chasing could be considered a safer form of storm-chasing. A menacing storm is desirable. But because sprites appear above thunderstorms, for any hope of spotting one, you must look for them from far away. If the thunderstorm is overhead, not only will you get soaked, but any sprite will be obscured by clouds. Smith considers the sweet spot to be 100 to 300 miles away — far enough to see above the clouds. “You’re threading a needle between the storm strength, light pollution, and distance from the storm,” Smith said. Often, when he’s out driving, he notices spots that are dark, have a clearing where he can pull over safely and set up his cameras, and — even better — boast a beautiful view, maybe over a pond or next to a photogenic abandoned barn. He’ll drop a pin on a map in his phone — for later, should the weather take him that way again. 

The first night of the chase, Smith was eyeing a storm cooking east of Oklahoma City. He pulled into a gravel lot between grassy fields and unpacked a heap of cameras and tripods, orienting them toward the inky east. Referring to the weather radar on his phone, Smith pointed our gaze in the storm’s direction. He estimated we were 150 to 200 miles away. Milky flashes of distant lightning pulsed low over the horizon. I didn’t even know I could see something so far away. We focused on the patch of sky about a fist’s width above the lightning: If the storm yielded sprites, that’s where they’d be.

 Like fishing, sprite-chasing is characterized by long stretches of waiting interrupted by bursts of adrenaline that follow either the high of a successful catch or the loss of one that got away. Even with several cameras going, Smith caught countless frames of nothing but night. The longer we waited, the more our eyes adjusted to the dark. It became easier to detect the faintest motion in the sky: a plane, a satellite, a shooting star. “This is my therapy,” Smith said. The Milky Way stretched overhead. Slumbering cows grumbled their disapproval, and a party of coyotes yipped across the field.

An hour passed, and a gauzy blanket of clouds crept into view. “Clouds are our nemesis,” said Smith, defeated. Even if there were sprites, we wouldn’t be able to see them, so we packed our bags.

Oklahoma is a good place for sprite-chasing because the plains routinely generate fierce thunderstorms capable of producing them. But the height of sprite season runs from late spring to early summer when Oklahoma’s squalls are strongest. (On a good night, Smith might catch tens of sprites.) October was pushing it, but Smith and Kosar remained hopeful: A line of storms seemed to be rolling in from the southwest. The next day, we’d check the weather and try again. 

A woman in glasses stands next to a tall man at night in a gravel lot. They look closely at a handheld screen. A camera tripod stands to their right.
Credit: Joy Ng

 


 

Written accounts of strange flashes of light linked to storms date back to the 1700s. The earliest known report comes from German legal scholar Johann Georg Estor, who in 1730 described viewing a storm from a mountaintop perch in Vogelsberg, when he saw flashes of light “directly up into the sky.” 

More than 200 years later, the spectacle was just as bewildering. In the 1980s, NASA pilots described lightning that struck upward, some 2,000 feet above their flight path. The light “shattered in all directions as an egg would do if it were thrown against a ceiling,” they reported. Because their observations weren’t captured on camera, the lightning science community largely disregarded the accounts. In a way, Kosar said, the study of sprites began with citizen scientists.

In the summer of 1989, a team of University of Minnesota scientists was testing a low-light camera and inadvertently captured a glowing blob high above the clouds. Videos taken from the Space Shuttle between 1989 and 1991 offered another view of the strange events. These captures unleashed a rush of interest in the upper atmosphere’s electric spectacles. After a 1994 airborne campaign caught the first sprites in color, and triangulated their position above storms, they were dubbed “sprites” for their elusive nature.  Now we know they are the most commonly observed of an entire wonderland of finicky phenomena known as transient luminous events, whose ranks include ELVES, TROLLs, gnomes, pixies, halos, blue jets, gigantic jets, and blue glimpses. 

A graph labeling the altitude (from 0 to 100km) and showing a range of transient luminous events at the altitudes at which they occur. The bottom of the graph shows the troposphere and depicts a lightning storm. Above the storm in ascending order are stylized images of blue glimpses, blue jets, gamma rays, electron-positron beams, gigantic jet, red sprite, halo, and elve.
Credits: DTU Space, NASA

There are two flavors of cloud-to-ground lightning, the kind that triggers sprites: positive and negative, depending on what kind of charge they send to the ground. Sprites are generated mainly by positive lightning, which tends to be about 10 times stronger than the negative variety. The odds can be daunting. Negative lightning far outnumbers the positive, with only about 10% of all lightning strikes being positive. And not every positive strike creates a sprite; Kosar estimates about 2% of positive strikes are powerful enough to trigger sprites. They require mighty squalls fueled by lots of churning, or convection. This churning creates the complex electrical environments inside thunderstorms that give rise to lightning strikes.

It works like this: When positive lightning sends charge surging groundward, it suddenly creates an electric field in the air, above the thunderstorm. This field stresses the thin upper atmosphere, rapidly heating electrically charged particles there. When those excited particles interact with nitrogen in the atmosphere, they produce bright red flashes of light. Scientists call this an electrical breakdown: what happens when something that doesn’t usually conduct electricity — air, in this case — receives a huge voltage, causing electric current to suddenly flow through it. 

For Kosar, sprites were an obsession at first sight. She had just finished her undergraduate degree when she first saw a video of sprites. On camera, sprites may look like they’re composed of branches of lights, but in reality, each branch is created by fast-moving balls of light that barrel down the sky, splitting into ever-smaller pieces. “They looked like fireworks,” Kosar said. “Since each is unique, I can look at them all day and never get bored.” While sprites were a passion of Kosar’s, she often found herself occupied with other research at NASA. Then, a friend tagged her in a post in a Facebook group — the International Observers of Upper-Atmospheric Electric Phenomena — and she was hooked again.

Created in 2013, the online community now numbers more than 7,000 observers of transient luminous events worldwide. When members learned of her expertise, they began tagging Kosar in their posts, asking her to identify their captures or explain unique features. That’s how she met Smith, an active member of the group. It became impossible for Kosar to answer all the questions, and she began dreaming of a citizen science project that would leverage the expertise of the observers and connect them with researchers like herself. “I really admire these people,” Kosar said. “Catching sprites is not easy. What they are doing is phenomenal.” 

A NASA mentor of Kosar’s had had success building such a project for aurora chasers. Meanwhile, another Goddard colleague, upper atmospheric scientist Dr. Jia Yue, persuaded Kosar the idea was worth pursuing, after he invited her to give a lecture about sprites to his class. Together, they drafted a proposal and won a grant to kick off the project.

Since 1989, sprites have been studied from the skies, space, and ground, but there’s still much to learn about them. Scientists don’t understand why sprites are displaced from their parent lightning flash, how they take on so many different shapes and sizes, and — crucially — what impacts they have in the atmosphere. However, because they’re so massive, sprites influence huge swathes of the sky. 

A woman with long blonde hair and glasses sits at a table and looks at her computer during the day. The computer is covered with nerdy stickers.
Credit: Joy Ng

By gathering observations from sprite-chasers and information on where and when they made them, Kosar can build a catalog of sprites, which would help chip away at these problems. With accurate time and location data, scientists can connect those observations to satellite data and records from NASA’s lightning mapping arrays or the National Lightning Detection Network. That would allow researchers to find each sprite’s so-called parent flash and identify properties of that lightning strike. They could also pull information on conditions in the storm and atmosphere when the sprite was born. “Speaking as a scientist who’s enthusiastic about these things, working with sprites-obsessed citizen scientists is amazing,” Kosar said. “Together, we’re going to build an invaluable database.”

 


 

Seeing a sprite is a very different experience from catching a sprite. To the human eye, they are merely a flicker of light over the horizon. This speed belies their complexity. Armed with tripods, low-light cameras, and long exposures, sprite-chasers can reveal their fine details. This is yet another reason why dark skies are crucial: Light pollution would wash out the long exposures used to catch sprites. (With dark skies and an unobstructed view of a faraway storm, basic gear — like a DSLR camera on the right settings — can hook sprites successfully. But Smith admits to being a gearhead. Although we drove a large SUV that could seat six comfortably, the back half of the car was filled with camera gear.).

On the second night of sprite-chasing, Smith set his sights on a deluge brewing a couple hundred miles away. He scans the radar daily, looking for storms with potential. The more intense the storm, the higher the odds it will produce sprites. Radar indicates the strength of the storm and what direction it’s traveling in. At the beginning of the trip, my teammate and video producer Ng pressed Smith for his forecast of our week in town. But beyond a three-day forecast, “it’s pretty much reading tarot cards,” he told her.

Smith had always been fascinated with the night sky. He spent many winters working as a surveyor in Canada’s Northwest Territories, stomping through snow aglow with the green light of the auroras. He captured his first sprite by accident. He was in the Mojave Desert, photographing the Perseid meteor showers, when he noticed the glint of distant lightning. A lifelong photographer, he snapped a photo. Later, he looked at the image and spotted a thin red line above the lightning. He’d heard of sprites before but was amazed to learn it was possible to capture them on camera. Since then, any sprite he caught was no accident, but the product of dogged planning. 

A tall man with gray hair looks down to adjust his camera, which is attached to a tall tripod. It is nighttime.
Credit: Joy Ng

“I suffer from FOMO,” Smith said. The fear of missing out on a sprite — that’s what compels him to drive night after night. When he does capture a sprite, he thrills at the knowledge that no one else in the world has seen what he has or caught what he did. Nighttime photography was a way for him to share what goes on while others slumber, each photo a glimpse of a world in which the sky exhibits all kinds of strange behavior.

And so, weather and life permitting, Smith chases sprites as often as he can. He has self-imposed a 2-hour-drive limit for promising storms — the farther you drive to catch a sprite, the farther you must drive to get back home — but it’s easy to convince himself to press farther. When we met him, he was also training to be a nurse; the long shifts followed by days off suit his nocturnal obsession. In a good month, he might go out 15 to 20 nights.

Our second spot was not so different from the first, at least as far as we could tell at night. It was remote, empty, and far from the city. Crickets chirped in the grass, armadillos rustled nearby. We’d spent some time driving around, trying to avoid a flashing light from a wind turbine, but the empty field was the only place with a clear view. We parked on an unpaved road and looked east.

The light annoyed Smith, who admitted to being a perfectionist. “I just find even the smallest light so oppressive,” he said. “Out here it’s like beautiful sky, beautiful dark, then — eep, eep!” He made a high-pitched beeping sound. I knew what he meant. Beneath the dark sky, those disturbances become loud as a shriek. I tried to focus on the patch of sky above the lightning, but the blinking tugged my gaze its way.

We shuffled on our feet, debating whether we should get back in the car and drive on for a better vantage point. Smith interrupted with a yell. “Sprite!” He hopped to the left, caught off-guard. “That was a sprite!” he said. A giddiness set over him, but he soon realized that he hadn’t yet unpacked the gear or set up his cameras. This was, he said, a classic rookie mistake. I chided myself for not catching the blip of light with my own eyes. Still, our moods lifted. If the clouds produced one sprite, surely they could produce more.

Once the chase begins, it’s difficult to stop. There’s always the hope of another flash. Five minutes more grows into 10, then 20, then 30. Then, suddenly, it’s 1 a.m. and you still have to drive home. After a couple hours, the pause between flashes of lightning grew longer. The storm was dying down. Smith had seen a sprite, but not caught it. Bleary-eyed and empty-handed, we packed our bags. It was a quiet drive back in the early morning, and the fluorescent city greeted us upon our return.

 


 

By the last night of sprite-chasing, the group was weary. We’d logged at least 700 miles of driving across Oklahoma. Everyone was low on sleep — twice that week, we’d gone to bed between 3 and 5 a.m. — and still, there were no sprites preserved on our camera’s memory cards. We agreed to push it for the last night of the trip, driving three hours southeast of the city to get within range of a growing storm over the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.

We set up on the shore of Sardis Lake, a reservoir dotted with shadows of islands and surrounded by gentle hills. The wide ribbon of the Milky Way unrolled above us. Kosar and Smith conferred over the radar. Something was not right. During the drive the system weakened. When we set out for the park, lightning strikes flared every 100 seconds. Now, the sky flashed every 1,000 seconds or so. Kosar faced the horizon, willing lights to appear.

A satellite image over the southern U.S. at night shows clouds over Tennessee and Alabama, with bright spots of lightning in blue.
Credit: NOAA

Meanwhile, a thunderstorm nearly 400 miles away, somewhere in Mississippi, teased Smith. He checked the radar and shook his head. “I just know it’s spriting over there,” he said. He worried about the long range, but the storm looked — as he put it — juicy. He proposed driving to another spot in the park, into its line of sight. The group agreed it was worth a shot, and we packed and unpacked the gear once more.

We set up camp on a thin land bridge slicing through the lake. The water lapped quietly at the roadside. Smith showed Kosar how to fish for sprites in video — immediately punching “record” after each flash of lightning; later, individual images could be isolated from the video. She frowned with concentration. The horizon flashed like a weak heartbeat. The night was clear and calm, even as we witnessed the sky break into a storm two states away.

A woman with long blonde hair and glasses looks at a handheld screen and grins. It is nighttime.
Credit: Joy Ng

Light interrupted the dark sky, and a shout broke the silence.

“Sprite!” Kosar and Smith yelled. They peered at the camera and replayed the recording, giddy with excitement. Eight strokes of red light darted into view: a set of column sprites.

“You can’t even yell the word ‘sprite’ before it’s over,” I said. “Not even ‘s’,” Kosar said.

Ng and I hadn’t spotted the sprite with our own eyes, but took satisfaction in witnessing a successful capture. Kosar played the recording over and over, and we cheered every time the columns flitted on screen. “I see how addictive this is,” she said. “I never want to leave.” She’d caught one sprite, and now she wanted another.

We dawdled that night, delaying our departure. I thought of the sprites we might have missed on the drive or sprites that might appear after we left, with no one around to see. The next time a storm raged overhead, I would think of sprites again. At 1 a.m., we tore ourselves away. Above, the deep sky seared with potential.♦

A grainy, nighttime photo shows a quiet body of water and a shadowed horizon in the background. A cluster of red streaks of light are in the sky.
Credit: Paul Smith/Burcu Kosar

 


 

Watch the Video:
Chasing Sprites in Electric Skies

Like an Outdoor Nightclub: Q&A on Pulsating Auroras

NASA’s citizen science projects are collaborations between scientists and interested members of the public. Through these collaborations, volunteers known as citizen scientists have helped make thousands of important scientific discoveries. Aurorasaurus is one such project that tracks auroras around the world in real time via reports on its website and on Twitter

Aurorasaurus often partners with other organizations to complement science with citizen science and recently Aurorasauraus partnered with NASA’s Loss through Auroral Microburst Pulsations (LAMP) mission. Early on the morning of Saturday, March 5, 2022, the LAMP mission successfully took flight, flying straight into a pulsating aurora. 

Pulsating auroras are quirky, shy auroral forms. They occur within diffuse auroras, and look like pulsating patches toward the equator that turn on and off every few seconds. They also have irregular shapes that reappear. They usually occur late in the night or early in the morning, after the main arcs have subsided. They dance often but are less frequently caught on camera due to their dimness and timing. Because auroras reveal invisible structures and pulsating auroras are caused by electrons with huge amounts of energy, pulsating auroras are important for studying how our planet gets energy from space.

The LAMP team included several of Aurorasaurs’ superuser group, the Aurorasaurus Ambassadors, who were excited to work together on a citizen science campaign around the mission. As part of the citizen science collaboration, the Aurorasaurus and LAMP teams asked for citizen scientists’ questions about pulsating aurora. Here are their answers. 

timelapse image of a rocket launch, showing bright streak into the skyWhat is the difference between the aurora that looks like a curtain and that which just looks like a fuzzy patch or cloud in the sky?

Auroras that look like curtains are called “discrete auroras,” and auroras that look like a fuzzy patch or cloud are called “diffuse auroras.” There’s a lot of science that goes into which makes an appearance at what time of night, and it can differ depending on your location. 

If you are watching from the auroras’ usual location at high latitudes—for example, from Fairbanks, Alaska, or Reykjavik, Iceland—you can see auroras caused by geomagnetic storms, which are caused by intense storms of particles and energy from the Sun. But more commonly you’ll see regular, smaller “auroral substorms.” These are caused by a different process. Both diffuse and discrete auroras happen as part of the natural progression of the more common process called a substorm.

silhouette of person in glass-walled room looking out into aurora-filled green sky
A scientist watches aurora from Poker Flat, Alaska. Photo credit: Dr. Alexa Halford

If you are watching from mid-latitudes like North Dakota or southern Alberta, the aurora you see will likely be caused by a geomagnetic storm. Stronger storms generate both types of aurora and tend to push the auroras further down toward the equator. 

Is it normal to have pulsating aurora and other kinds of aurora in the sky together?

Yes, it is very common for pulsating aurora to appear alongside other types. Depending on your location, you might see part or all of the sky pulsating. Much like discrete auroras, pulsating auroras fan out across great distances and are visible from different perspectives, based on your location. You could even find yourself in a special location where, in addition to pulsating auroras, you can see discrete aurora evolving to the north and diffuse aurora pulsing to the south, with a distinct edge between the two. 

There are also many different sub-types of pulsating aurora. Some form shapes that hold their edges like a patch turning on and off, while some “whoosh” on and off in curling, dragonlike shapes. Another type of aurora forms shapes that are unusually flat, like pancakes in the sky. Seeing one of these types might mean that there’s some interesting science going on in the Earth’s ionized upper atmosphere, or in the way particles rain down from space. Citizen scientists’ photos of these displays from multiple locations may help scientists find more clues to the mystery of how they occur. 

I am curious about the speed of the pulsating aurora and what makes it dance so fast.  It is almost like being in an outdoor nightclub!

Pulsating auroras can dance slowly or quickly, and can flash both pink and green. They can especially give a nightclub effect when multiple things are happening at once. Here are two factors that contribute to the lights turning on and off, which is a time-based or “temporal” effect. 

    • Pulsating auroras we think are caused by special waves called “chorus waves” interacting with particles in near-Earth space. The waves can give the particles energy, bouncing them into the atmosphere. The frequency of groups of chorus waves is the frequency at which the particles are being thrown into the upper atmosphere, and therefore the frequency of the patchy pulsations that you see. Sometimes, there are even higher-speed variations embedded in the light that are not visible to the naked eye or regular cameras.
    • Extra-fast, pink flashes are caused by the chemistry of nitrogen gas. The colors of aurora are made when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere are energized and then release that extra energy as light. Different gases make different colors, and the release process happens at different speeds for different kinds. Nitrogen, which makes a pink color, emits light very quickly—faster than oxygen green—so the pink appears to move faster.

Put these together and you can get brilliant, rapid displays!

Can I see pulsating aurora in Washington state?

Yes, pulsating aurora may occur at mid-latitudes during larger geomagnetic storms. Keep an eye on Aurorasaurus and our Storm Tracker chart to help track auroral activity. And if you see pulsating aurora, you can make a citizen science report to Aurorasaurus! Pulsating auroras can be enormous, and cover hundreds of miles, so the more locations they are reported from, the more our scientific understanding can grow. The project is grateful to all those who submitted reports during the LAMP mission campaign. 

Why is it important to send instruments above the pulsating aurora to measure it? What things can’t be measured from the ground or satellites?

While satellites and ground-based observations can capture some aspects, we can gain a better picture of the cause of auroral dynamics by collecting particles within or very near to the aurora. To do this, scientists send instruments to collect data at and just above the location of the aurora, using a special type of rocket known as a sounding rocket, which can fly into auroras. 

Sounding rockets provide a unique way to capture data about the aurora in situ in regions that are otherwise hard to sample. Sounding rockets also move more slowly than satellites, so they can better capture rapidly-moving phenomena like auroras in exquisite detail. This can help scientists learn more about “microphysics,” the physics of waves interacting with tiny, charged particles. On March 5, 2022, a sounding rocket launched LAMP to about 267 miles up where it flew through a pulsating aurora. 

Woman holding a computer in front of large screen showing data.
Dr. Allison Jaynes examines data on the night of the launch. Photo credit: Mike Shumko

On March 5, 2022, a sounding rocket launched LAMP to about 267 miles up where it flew through a pulsating aurora. In addition, LAMP also had two cameras on board to take photos of the aurora, from a Japanese team including members from JAXA, Nagoya University, Tohoku University, Kyushu Institute of Technology, and the University of Electro-Communications. Because the rocket itself rotates about once per second, the cameras were mounted on a “de-spun” platform. The platform rotates in the opposite direction of the rocket at the same rate as it spins, so the cameras can stay relatively still and take clear pictures. The camera provided real-time still images of the pulsating patches to the scientists on the ground. This was the first time that a camera with a de-spun platform mounted to a rocket has been successfully demonstrated! 

data graphic of pulsating aurora
Simultaneous images of pulsating aurora from the two cameras attached to LAMP. Images: AIC-S1/AIC-S2 team

Has rocket citizen science been done before?

Yes! Aurorasaurus helped connect two-woman citizen science team Hearts in the Ice with a rocket mission in Norway during their time overwintering in Svalbard. Read more here

What’s it like to help with a mission like this? 

Pretty amazing, according to Aurorasaurus Ambassador and senior undergraduate student at the University of North Dakota,Vincent Ledvina, who helped with the launch: 

I just got back from Fort Yukon, Alaska, where Aurorasaurus helped connect me with an opportunity to assist with the NASA LAMP sounding rocket mission. It was eye-opening and rewarding to watch the team effort, and I am grateful to Aurorasaurus and the LAMP team for opening this door to me. Seeing all the moving parts (literally and figuratively) that have to come together in order for the mission to be a success makes me realize how important communication and leadership are in science. Logistics in remote areas is a challenge I never fully realized until this mission. Although I was staying at an Air Force station, I only had access to a low-bandwidth satellite internet connection with no cell service, so the most reliable communication was a landline phone that looked straight from the 1980s!

While I had some sense of how aurora cameras work from the North Dakota Dual Auroral Camera (NoDDAC) project, I finally got a taste of what real science-grade cameras are like. My job was to make sure three special cameras — some of which were from the Japanese rocket team — were running when the LAMP rocket launched, to capture video of pulsating aurora. The video will be correlated with data the rocket gathered as it flew through the aurora.

An avid photographer himself, Vincent Ledvina took 40,000 of his own images during the trip and made this beautiful compilation.

Pulsating aurora is a fascinating and mysterious phenomenon, and Auroasaurus looks forward to seeing what the data gathered by LAMP will reveal. They are grateful to all the citizen scientists who sent in questions—especially Michelle and Tracy—submitted photos of pulsating aurora, and shared info about the mission! Thank you for your interest and contributions. 

Aurorasaurus website interface showing map of region around Alaska and green blob representing aurora.
Report from Aurorasaurus website.

By Laura Brandt,
Aurorasaurus team

NASA-funded CubeSat Discovers Source of Super-fast Electron Rain

By Emmanuel Masongsong

Using a NASA-funded CubeSat, scientists have uncovered a new source of super-fast, energetic electrons raining down on our planet, which can have implications for space infrastructure and atmospheric modeling.

Scientists from the University of California Los Angles (UCLA) observed this rain, known as “electron precipitation”, from low-Earth orbit using the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation, or ELFIN, mission. ELFIN is a pair of small, cube-shaped satellites known as CubeSats. It was built and operated by UCLA undergraduate and graduate students under guidance from small team of staff mentors.

Combining ELFIN data with more distant observations from NASA’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS, spacecraft, the scientists determined that the electron rain was caused by whistler waves, a type of electromagnetic wave that ripples through plasma in space. Their results, published in Nature Communications, found more electron precipitation than leading theories had previously predicted.

The THEMIS and ELFIN satellites (orbits shown in cyan and green, respectively) worked together to help understand the mystery of electron rain. When whistler waves (purple) interact with the electrons, they can give them extra energy (red spiral), which causes them to fall into the atmosphere. Credit: Zhang et al. 2022

“ELFIN is the first satellite to measure these super-fast electrons,” said Xiaojia Zhang, lead author on the new paper and researcher in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences (EPSS). “The mission is yielding new insights due to its unique vantage point.”

The near-Earth space environment is highly dynamic and filled with charged particles orbiting in giant rings around the planet called Van Allen radiation belts. Similar to a coiled slinky bouncing back and forth between two hands, electrons in the radiation belts travel in spirals between Earth’s North and South magnetic poles. Under certain conditions, electromagnetic vibrations called whistler waves can occur in the radiation belts, energizing and speeding up the electrons so much that they can be lost into the atmosphere, creating the electron rain.

Electrons in Earth’s radiation belts, show as yellow and red cross-sections, typically spiral back and forth, bouncing between the Poles. However, disturbances to the belts can boost electrons out of their typical orbits, making them shower down at the North and South Pole, where they can spark the auroras. Credit: Emmanuel Masongsong

Combining THEMIS observations of whistler waves, ELFIN’s electron data and sophisticated computer modeling, the team saw how the whistler waves caused a rapid torrent of electrons to flow into the atmosphere, far beyond the amount expected from previous theories. Current space weather models do not account for this extra electron flow, which not only contributes to dazzling auroras, but can damage low-orbiting satellites and affect atmospheric chemistry.

“It’s truly a rewarding feeling to have increased our knowledge of space science, using data from the hardware we built ourselves,” said Colin Wilkins, co-author, instrument lead, and space physics doctoral student in EPSS. “It takes tremendous effort and determination behind the scenes to make that happen.”

The team further showed that this type of radiation belt loss to the atmosphere can increase significantly during geomagnetic storms, which are disturbances caused by enhanced solar activity that can affect near-Earth space. Existing models do not account for this, thus underestimating the effects of electron precipitation.

Factoring in the impact of electron losses on the atmosphere is important not only for terrestrial modeling, but also for understanding Earth’s magnetic environment and predicting hazards to satellites, astronauts, and other space infrastructure. Although space is commonly thought to be separate from our upper atmosphere, the two are inextricably linked. Understanding how they’re linked can benefit satellites and astronauts passing through the region, which are increasingly important for commerce, Earth monitoring, telecommunications, and tourism.

“The ELFIN mission has given UCLA students the chance to work on an industry-caliber project right on campus, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to accomplish so much with over 300 undergraduate students without sacrificing the quality of the science,” said Ethan Tsai, co-author, project manager, and doctoral student in space physics. “Data from the ELFIN satellites are at the cutting edge of space weather studies and will be heavily used by researchers around the world over the next decade, so we’ve worked very hard to make our data open and easily accessible to the entire space science community.”

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Solar Tour Pit Stop #12: At the Sun

At the Sun

Greetings from the Sun! Today is the final stop of our #SolarTour and we’ve got some big news from Parker Solar Probe. 


Hot off the press!

We’ve touched the Sun! Parker Solar Probe is officially the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – sample particles and magnetic fields there. Flying so close to the Sun is revealing new things about our star, like where striking magnetic zig-zag structures in solar wind, called switchbacks, are born. Learn all about it: go.nasa.gov/3oU7Vlj


Sharing Parker’s journey

As Parker Solar Probe flew through the solar atmosphere, it scooped up a bit of plasma in a special instrument called a Faraday cup. NASA program scientist and project manager for the instrument Kelly Korreck, shares what it’s been like to be a part of the mission.

A Q&A with Kelly Korreck


We made it!

We’ve hit the end of the line – for now. But Parker Solar Probe will continue venturing closer to the solar surface in the coming years, bringing us new science and insight about our closest star. 

Until then, we invite you to sing along with us as we recap the 12 days of the #SolarTour in a festive song!

Record yourself singing our lyrics, and if your submission catches our eye, we may feature your video!  Here’s how to participate:

    1. Record yourself singing our 12 Days of the #SolarTour song (lyrics below).
    2. Share your video and tag us on Facebook (@NASASunScience) or Twitter (@NASASun) for a chance to be featured on NASA’s website and social media accounts!
    3. If your submission catches our eye, we’ll be in touch to obtain permission for it to be considered for sharing from one of our social media accounts or other NASA digital products.

Here are the lyrics:

On the first day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
A spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the second day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the third day of solar tour

Our bright Sun let us see
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the fourth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the fifth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the sixth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the seventh day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the eighth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Venus that we’re passing
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the ninth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Solar wind a-blowing
Venus that we’re passing
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the tenth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
A solar cycle growing
Solar wind a-blowing
Venus that we’re passing
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the eleventh day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
Switchbacks are snapping
A solar cycle growing
Solar wind a-blowing
Venus that we’re passing
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

On the twelfth day of solar tour
Our bright Sun let us see
We touched our Sun
Switchbacks are snapping
A solar cycle growing
Solar wind a-blowing
Venus that we’re passing
Dust and plasma drifting
Satellites a-zooming
The magnetosphere
Dancing aurora
An electric atmosphere
A total eclipse
And a spacecraft launch from Kennedy

Solar Tour Pit Stop #11: Near the Sun

Near the Sun

We’re nearing the end of our solar tour, which means we’re getting closer to the star of the show! We sent Parker Solar Probe to the Sun to investigate some of our star’s biggest mysteries. The closer we get, the more discoveries we make.


The Sun’s hottest mystery

One of the big questions we hope to answer with Parker Solar Probe is the coronal heating problem: the mystery of why the Sun’s atmosphere is much, much hotter than the surface below – just the opposite of what we would expect. In this story, learn more about one of the hottest questions in solar science. 


Parker Solar Probe’s first discoveries

So far, Parker Solar Probe’s discoveries include zig-zagging magnetic switchbacks and our solar system’s elusive dust-free zone. Revisit the mission’s first batch of results.


You’re getting warmer…

Now that we’re approaching the Sun, we have just one more stop to go on our solar tour where we have a big announcement!

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!

Solar Tour Pit Stop #10: The Solar Cycle

The Solar Cycle

Everything we’ve seen so far on the solar tour has been shaped by the Sun’s activity, which ebbs and flows over an 11-year cycle. To understand the Sun’s effects on space, we need to get to the bottom of the solar cycle.


How one scientist predicts the solar cycle

Solar scientist Lisa Upton builds computer models to predict how strong a solar cycle will be. It’s her favorite part of her job – and important work for helping us plan and prepare for space weather events.

Learn how she makes solar cycle predictions and why she loves studying the Sun.


Tracking the solar cycle

Tracking the solar cycle is a huge effort. It takes measurements of the Sun’s magnetic fields, complex models, and – most importantly – daily hand-drawn maps of the Sun’s surface. In this story, learn how scientists around the world track the solar cycle. 


Sketching the Sun

To track the solar cycle’s progress, scientists rely on observers who draw the Sun’s surface by hand, every day! Want to sketch one of your own?
Visit the latest from our SDO and see whether the Sun has sunspots today (scroll to HMI Intensitygram): 
https://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!

Solar Tour Pit Stop #9: The Solar Wind

The Solar Wind

Ah, the solar wind – that steady stream of particles our Sun sheds to space. The solar wind fills every nook and cranny of interstellar space, pelting planetary atmospheres and shaping their long-term fate.


Space weather

Hey Parker, how’s the weather out there?

There’s weather in space – but we’re not talking rain or snow. The solar wind can trigger magnetic storms with dangerous effects on astronauts, satellites and even our power grid.

Curious about space weather?  Your questions, answered.


The Solar Wind at Earth

“If the Sun sneezes, Earth catches a cold.”

The solar wind keeps us in touch with what’s happening on the Sun. More on how it affects us here on Earth and how Parker protects itself in space.


Solar wind speed

Even the slowest solar wind travels about 186 miles per second.

At that speed, we’ll be at our next stop in a jiffy!

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!

Solar Tour Pit Stop #8: Venus

A Swing by Venus

Greetings from the solar tour! We have arrived at Venus.

Venus and Earth are twins, both rocky and similar size and structure.  Studying Venus helps scientists understand what makes Venus inhospitable and Earth habitable.

But Venus is closer to the Sun, and spacecraft that have flown there in the past have only survived a few hours. 


The sounds of Venus

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is traveling to study the Sun, and flies by Venus to help slingshot it closer to our star.

During a recent flyby of Venus, Parker found that the planet’s upper atmosphere goes through surprising changes over the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle. 

More on what Parker “heard” from Venus


Venus’ nightside

Flying by Venus can give unique and expected views of the inner solar system. 

While flying by Venus, Parker Solar Probe captured this view of Venus’ nightside.

The WISPR instrument captured the image in July 2020 from 7,693 miles away from the planet. More on Parker’s stunning view.


Falling towards the Sun

Thanks to Venus’ gravity, we’ve slowed our orbit to fall even closer to the Sun. Onwards!

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!

Solar Tour Pit Stop #7: Interplanetary Space

The Space Between

Hello from interplanetary space!

This solar tour stop may seem empty, but there’s more than meets the eye. 


Empty space, full of plasma

If you look closely, the space between the planets is filled with dust, particles, magnetic fields and a mysterious substance called plasma. Hear from scientists Doug Rowland and Don Gurnett as we journey through this mysterious and electrifying substance. 


Weird space

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know space is weird. But just how weird might surprise you. Space is dominated by invisible electromagnetic forces that we typically don’t feel. It’s also full of a bizarre state of matter that we don’t usually experience on Earth.

Here are five unearthly things that happen in outer space. 


Kickin’ up dust

Just as dust gathers in corners and along bookshelves in our homes, dust piles up in interplanetary space, too. 

Dust is dispersed throughout the entire solar system, but it collects in rings around the orbits of Earth and Venus. By studying this dust, scientists seek clues to understanding the birth of planets and the composition of all that we see in the solar system.

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!

Solar Tour Pit Stop #6: L1

Float with NASA’s Fleet at Lagrange Point 1!

Greetings from Lagrange Point 1, or L1, the 6th stop on our solar tour! This is a special place between Earth and the Sun where their gravitational forces are balanced. It’s a great spot for spacecraft because they’ll stay put between the two objects and orbit with Earth, no fuel required.


Q&A with a solar expert

The spacecraft with us here at L1 play a key role in helping us understand the structure of the Sun. Learn more about studying the Sun from afar with solar scientist Ruizhu Chen.

Dr. Chen on studying the Sun


L1, 25 years on

There’s a lot happening on the surface of our Sun, too, and L1 offers a great view of that as well. Equipped with a special tool to see the Sun’s outer atmosphere, NASA’s SOHO mission has been watching the Sun for over 25 years from L1. Check out this video for a glimpse of our star through the decades.


Keep floatin’

That’s a wrap on our time at L1, but in theory we could stay here forever.

We’re now halfway through the Solar Tour before our big announcement. Come back tomorrow for our next stop!

Follow NASA’s #SolarTour on Twitter and Facebook!