Scientists investigate upside-down lightning that touches the edge of space

On May 14, 2018, a storm from “Twilight” rained over Oklahoma.

Instead of spreading the Earth with jagged lightning, the dense clouds that powered the storm spewed upwards 50 miles, enough to skim the ionosphere or the edge of space. This violent, backward burst of current will soon be classified as one of nature’s most mysterious atmospheric phenomena: giant jets.

The giant jets are just beams of light created alongside regular lightning, but pointing in the opposite direction. But they are far more powerful than their downward adversaries, and sometimes even threaten space vehicles or other technologies floating in orbit around our planet.And this particular Incredibly intense. It is thought to be the most powerful of its kind studied so far, carrying a charge of about 300 coulombs, 100 times more than a typical lightning bolt.

Scientists have identified several of these strange forces over the past two decades, but many of these sightings have been serendipitous by the public.

For example, a purple streak was captured by a plane flying over Badrak, India, while another purple streak was captured by a night camera near the 6,240-foot summit of Shikengkong Mountain in China. In 2013, NASA added an experiment to the International Space Station to help us get a better, more aggressive view of the scene above the cloud tops so we could capture the giant jet in action. Still, the scientific community doesn’t have many observation systems dedicated to searching.

That’s why Oklahoma’s 2018 events were accidental.

As it happens, the extreme event happened near a bunch of related scientific instruments in the state, such as a satellite network and a lightning-mapping system that detects so-called “very high-frequency signals.” A citizen scientist in the area even filmed it with a low-light camera. So, using all these clues, a team of scientists gathered as much data as possible about the jet in an attempt to recreate in detail what happened in the swirling skies of Oklahoma four years ago.

On the left side of the frame is a red wing, with a huge purple jet in the background.

The giant jet was captured with a 3.2-second exposure over Bhadrak, India. While the giant jet appears to be attached to the plane’s wings, it may have started farther out in a thundercloud and could be seen extending up into the Earth’s ionosphere.

Hung-Hsi Chang/NASA

“We were able to map this huge plane in three dimensions with really high-quality data,” said Levi Boggs, a Georgia Institute of Technology research scientist and author of a paper on the structure published Aug. 3 in the journal Science Advances. A map of the jets,” , said in a press release.

This three-dimensional structure is important for decoding giant jets, because their rise from clouds means they are often obscured. “We were able to see very high-frequency sources above the cloud tops, and this level of detail has never been seen before,” Boggs said. These VHF signals provide a goldmine of information about the jumbo jet.

Basically, the lightning that emanates from a thunderstorm cloud is produced by a combination of leaders and streamers. Leaders are the result of differences in electric charge that help create lightning, and streamers are found at the very tips of these developing bolts. These forces work together to spread the electricity directed from storm clouds, but the leader usually forms most of the discharge.

The researchers of the new study are the first to clearly see where the giant jet leaders and streamers are located above Thunderstorm clouds during the Oklahoma event, not where they are usually found at the bottom. Second, “radio and optical data show the first clear evidence that the VHF observed by the Lightning Network is generated by a streamer in front of the leader,” the study authors wrote.

“These cold currents start to spread above the cloud tops,” Boggs explained. “They travel all the way to the lower ionosphere to an altitude of 50-60 miles, creating a direct electrical connection between the cloud tops and the lower ionosphere.”

In addition to this, the team dissected many other intriguing giant jet charge dynamics and even identified one possible explanation for why these strange beams spew. “For whatever reason, cloud-to-ground emissions are generally suppressed,” Boggs said of the records gathered from the Oklahoma event. “In the absence of the lightning discharges we typically see, the giant jets may have mitigated the build-up of excess negative charge in the cloud.”

In other words, some thunderstorm clouds may dampen their negative energy – which, as they say, must come in one way or another.

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