The Intimate Waltz of Sprites and Elves on Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Contrary to popular belief, lightning has the ability to strike the same place twice.

What is lightning?

Lightning is a phenomenon caused by a degree of an imbalance of electrical charges between the ground and the clouds, or commonly, within the clouds themselves. From the beginning of time, lightning has been the subject of man’s fascination. The Ancient Greeks believed that lightning came from Zeus; since this flash of light manifested from a god, anything that it struck is considered to be sacred. Hence, the erection of temples where lightning struck was commonplace during this time. If one was in Scandinavia, Zeus’ counterpart would be Thor, the god of thunder. The Norse god uses his lightning bolts to strike his foes. On the other hand, Indians believed that lightning catalyzes their healing rituals.

As humans, we are usually afraid and are enslaved by what we don’t understand. However, investments on modern technology have enabled us to crack the mystery of lightning, among others, making us momentary masters of what we don’t know.

Lightning has two basic elements: cold air and warm air. The collision of warm and cold air then forms thunderstorm clouds. The cold air harbors ice crystals, while the warm air contains water droplets. In the middle of the storm, the droplets and the crystals collide with each other, which form electrical charges emerging from clouds.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to our planet, but it is also recognized throughout the farthest corners of the solar system, including the gas giant Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Mars, Venus, and Neptune. Perhaps we are not alone in having this atmospheric play of charges.

Sprites vs. Elves

Space-related terms are usually mouthful, but astronomers have always done a brilliant job in reducing these terms into mythological creature-sounding acronyms. “Sprites” stand for Stratospheric Perturbations Resulting from Intense Thunderstorm Electrification. “Elves” stand for Emission of Light and Very Low-Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources, or TLE.

Sprites cover a big area on top of an active thunderstorm but are weakly luminous. They appear as small, individual spots or multiple elongated spots, to bright clusters extending from the top of the clouds to almost 60 miles. They usually resemble a jellyfish, carrots, or columns to a certain degree, emitting an indistinct red glow that lasts no more than a few milliseconds.

Compared to Sprites, Elves cover larger surface areas faster. Appearing as circular-shaped emissions of light, they usually last less than a thousandth of a second.

Seeing The Unseen

Scientists are eventually getting a clearer picture of these fleeting bursts of light. It is worth noting that these flashes cannot be visualized with the naked eye as they occur extremely fast and are spotted at higher altitudes than the usual lightning. The appearance of these aberrations in light are supported by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting around Jupiter since 2016. The gas giant’s atmosphere is a melting pot of turbulent storms, making it the optimal planet to observe TLEs.

Within the spacecraft is the Ultraviolet Spectrograph. On the spectrum of light, anything beyond or below visible light cannot be visualized. With the help of the Ultraviolet Spectrograph, The Juno spacecraft has captured radiant bursts—elves or sprites dancing on the atmosphere of the largest planet—of UV light, which were declared to be the first-ever TLEs detected on another planet.

“We’re continuing to look for more telltale signs of elves and sprites every time Juno does a science pass,” said Giles. “Now that we know what we are looking for, it will be easier to find them at Jupiter and on other planets. And comparing sprites and elves from Jupiter with those here on Earth will help us better understand electrical activity in planetary atmospheres.”

Photo Sources:

Cover Photo – Twitter
Photo 1 – YouTube 1:20
Photo 2 – NASA via
Photo 3 – NASA