Red Sprites, Blue Jets, Pixies, Elves: Weird Lights Studied from Space (Video)

Blue jets from ISS
While European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen was aboard the International Space Station in 2015, he studied strange electrical discharges that appear over thunderstorms. (Image credit: ESA/NASA)

In views from the International Space Station, a mysterious set of electrical discharges shine above a roiling thunderstorm in Earth's upper atmosphere. 

Andreas Mogensen, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut who flew in 2015, took pictures over thunderstorms to try to see the strange atmospheric features, which are sometimes called red sprites, blue jets, pixies and elves. The work was recently published by Denmark's National Space Institute, and Mogensen's footage is spotlighted in an ESA video

"It is not every day that you get to capture a new weather phenomenon on film, so I am very pleased with the result — but even more so that researchers will be able to investigate these intriguing thunderstorms in more detail soon," Mogensen said in a statement.

Mogensen focused on cloud turrets, or pillars of cloud that extend into the upper atmosphere, to pinpoint the blue flashes. He documented 245 blue flashes during a 160-second video of a thunderstorm above the Bay of Bengal.

Satellites orbiting Earth are poorly placed to look at these storms because their high viewing angle doesn't show the scale of the blue jets, especially for smaller discharges, ESA officials stated. The space station, by contrast, is in a low-Earth orbit and is a better platform for capturing these transient phenomena.

"The blue discharges and jets are examples of a little-understood part of our atmosphere," ESA officials said in the statement. "Electrical storms reach into the stratosphere and have implications for how our atmosphere protects us from radiation."

Researchers will be able to follow up on the work using the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, an instrument suite slated to launch to the space station later this year. It will be installed outside the station's Columbus laboratory to look at thunderstorms and their "transient luminous events," ESA officials said.

The results were detailed in January in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: