Scientists are investigating an upside down lightning bolt that hit the edge of space

On May 14, 2018, a storm fell straight from the twilight zone over Oklahoma.

Instead of scattering the Earth with jagged lightning bolts, the thick envelopes of clouds feeding this storm spit 50 miles upward, far enough to graze the ionosphere, or the edge of space. This violent, retarded eruption of electricity will soon be categorized as one of nature’s most mysterious atmospheric phenomena: a giant jet.

Giant jets are simply rays of light generated alongside ordinary lightning bolts, but directed in the opposite direction. But they are much more powerful than their downward-facing counterparts, and sometimes even threaten spacecraft or other technologies floating in our planet’s orbit. This is exactly what it was very strong. It is considered the most powerful of its kind studied to date, carrying an estimated 300 coulombs of electric charge, which is 100 times more than a typical lightning bolt.

Over the past two decades, scientists have identified many of these strange forces, but many of those sightings have been accidental catches from the public.

For example, a violet streak was photographed from a plane passing over Bhadrak, India, and another plane was seen with a night camera near the 6,240-foot summit of Mount Chengkong in China. In 2013, NASA added an experiment to the International Space Station in order to help get a better, more active view of the scene above the cloud tops so we could catch the giant planes in action. However, the scientific community does not have many monitoring systems designed specifically for research.

Which is why the 2018 Oklahoma accident was a coincidence.

By chance, this extreme event occurred near a range of relevant scientific instruments in the state, such as satellite networks and a lightning mapping system that detects so-called “Very High Frequency signals.” One citizen and scientist in the region even filmed it with a low-light camera. So, drawing on all these clues, a crew of scientists collected as much data as possible about the plane in an effort to draw a detailed account of what happened four years ago in the Oklahoman vortex skies.

A red plane wing is on the left of the screen, with a giant purple jet plane in the background.

This giant aircraft was captured in a single exposure of 3.2 seconds over Bhadrak, India. Although the giant plane appears attached to the plane’s wing, it likely started in a farther thundercloud and can be seen extending upward toward Earth’s ionosphere.

Hong Hsi-chang / NASA

“We were able to map this giant plane in three dimensions with really high-quality data,” said Levi Boggs, a research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of a research paper on the structure published August 28. 3 in Science Advances, said in a press release.

Such a 3D structure is important in the quest to decode giant aircraft because their ascent from the clouds means they are often hidden from view. “We’ve been able to see high-frequency sources above the top of the cloud, which we’ve never seen before with this level of detail,” Boggs said. VHF signals provided a goldmine of information about the giant aircraft.

Basically, lightning bolts emitted from thunderstorm clouds are produced by a combination of leaders and streamers. Leaders are the result of electrical charge differences that aid in the development of lightning, and transmitters are at the tip of those that develop bolts. These forces work together to spread directed electricity from within the storm cloud, but the leaders usually make up the bulk of the discharge.

The researchers in the new study primarily saw conclusively that the giant leaders that produce jets and streamers have been identified. above Thunderstorm cloud during the Oklahoma event, not toward the bottom where it would normally be located. Second, “the radio and optical data show the first clear evidence that the VHF waves observed by lightning networks are produced by pre-commander transmitters,” the study authors wrote.

“Those cool streamers start spreading just above the top of the cloud,” Boggs explained. “They spread all the way to the lower ionosphere at 50-60 miles altitude, making a direct electrical connection between the top of the cloud and the lower ionosphere.”

Beyond that, the team dissected several other intriguing giant jet charge dynamics, and settled on even one possible explanation for why these individual beams appeared at all. “For whatever reason, there is usually a suppression of cloud-to-ground discharges,” Boggs said of the records gathered from the Oklahoma event. “In the absence of the lightning discharges we typically see, a giant jet may relieve excess negative charge buildup in the cloud.”

In other words, some thunderclouds may be holding back their negative energy – and as they say, this is bound to come out somehow.

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