Tag: lightning

Raging clouds, near and very, very far

By Phil Plait | July 22, 2012 6:30 am

I follow quite a few photographers on Google+, Twitter, and other social media. Why? Because this:

I know, right? This ridiculously amazing picture [click to embiggen, or see an even bigger version] was taken by Randy Halverson of DakotaLapse.com, whose photos have been featured here on the BABlog many times (see Related Posts below). He took this one on the evening of July 19, 2012 as part of a time lapse he’s making. The vast Milky Way galaxy glows above the red clouds illuminated by town lights from below. And on the horizon a storm rages, eruptions of lightning strikes captured in this 15 second exposure.

Funny – the Milky Way looks a bit like a cloud there, but instead of countless droplets of water held up in our air, it’s composed of hundreds of billions of stars suspended in space by their orbital motion around the galactic center. We can see only a few thousand stars with our naked eyes, and they’re all very close, most within a hundred light years of Earth. But the Milky Way is a thousand times bigger than that, and the glow we see is actually the blended light of far more stars than there are people on Earth.

And yet in this shot even that mighty power is reduced to a faint smear compared to the electric discharge of a nearby storm. The raw energy released in a bolt of lightning is staggering, but it’s essentially nothing compared to a galaxy’s worth of stars. It’s only their terrible, terrible distance that dims them.

As you juggle the events that happen in your daily life, remember this photograph. It’s easy to get distracted by smaller flashy things that are nearby, and forget about much bigger issues if they’re far enough removed. It’s a thought worth holding close.

Photo credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission.


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Lightning strikes in a storm bigger than worlds

By Phil Plait | July 18, 2012 3:18 pm

In 2010, a storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. It grew, and grew, and GREW, until it physically wrapped around the planet. At its peak it was 300,000 kilometers (180,000 miles) in length: 3/4 of the distance from the Earth to the Moon!

As you might expect, a storm like that might generate lightning… and even from a distance of 3.3 million km (2 million miles), the lightning flashes were bright enough that they were visible to the Cassini spacecraft:

Holy. Haleakala. [Click to encronosenate, and you want to.]

The lightning flash can be seen in the image on the left, indicated by the arrow. It happened while Cassini happened to be using a blue filter, which is why it appears to be that color. The white and tan milky clouds are from the storm itself.

The lightning has several analogies to storms here on Earth; the brightness was comparable to the brightest of terrestrial lightning strokes, and was produced in an atmospheric layer where water droplets freeze, like here as well.

But bear in mind the scale here. The head of that storm you can see in the image here is roughly the same size as our entire planet Earth. Storms like this must happen every so often on Saturn, given the odds of us happening to see one just as we also happen to have a spacecraft there that can take a really good look at it.

Always remember: when we gaze out at the objects in our solar system, and even beyond, these aren’t just static painting of long ago events, unchanging and forever frozen. They are actual worlds, dynamic and ever-shifting. And as alien as they are, there is always something analogous to Earth about them, something that will always remind us of, and teach us more about, our home.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, lightning, Saturn, Storm

Ridiculously awesome photo and time lapse of a stormcloud at twilight

By Phil Plait | June 29, 2012 3:17 pm

I’ve been following photographer Jeffrey Sullivan on Google+ for a while now — it’s a great place to see the work of talented people, and that’s where I found his lunar eclipse sequence I posted here last year.

Jeff is really good, and gets amazing shots of the sky. But today he posted the best shot I’ve seen from him: this jaw-dropping composite photo of a cumulonimbus cloud spawning lightning below and with star trails above:

Holy. Haleakala.

He shot this during spring 2012 near the California/Nevada border. The mountain getting electrocuted is Bald Mountain, which is southeast of Lake Tahoe. This is actually a combination of a sequence of pictures that were part of a time lapse video he was shooting, which is how he got the star trails as well. In fact, if you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor by now, time to let it freefall once again while you watch the video:

You can see why he was the Royal Museums of Greenwich Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2011 for the People and Space category. He tells me he’s working on a book on how to shoot landscape photography in California, and that’ll be out around the end of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing that!

Image credit: Jeffrey Sullivan, used by permission. Tip o’ the lens cap to Russel Bateman on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Looking down into the throat of a lightning storm

By Phil Plait | June 15, 2012 7:03 am

Traveling over west Africa at 8 kilometers per second in the International Space Station, astronaut André Kuipers took this eerie and lovely picture of a storm cloud just as it was illuminated by a lightning stroke:

[Click to enlighten yourself.]

Wow. This is easily as cool as another amazing shot of a lightning-illuminated cloud over Brazil taken from space in 2011, too.

And hmmmm. Scientists have detected gamma rays — extremely high-energy light — presumably generated by lightning storms and shooting straight up into space. I hope nothing makes André stressed any time soon. The ISS is no place for him to Hulk out!

[P.S. Before anyone asks — and as much as I hate to explain a joke, I guess I really should in this case — the gamma rays emitted by lightning storms are extremely weak, and not a danger to the astronauts.]

Credit: ESA/NASA


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Oh great. Now we have lightning equipped with lasers.

By Phil Plait | September 6, 2011 6:20 am

Oh, when will scientists learn? First it was laser pointers, then sharks with lasers. Now? Lightning storms with lasers.

[Click to enteslanate.]

What could possibly go wrong? Dun dun DUNNNNNNNN.

OK, fine. In reality, this picture actually shows a storm approaching an observatory testing out a new type of laser guide star system; lasers can be used as a way of increasing the resolution of telescopes. The storm was still a ways off, but from the photographer’s view the laser was superposed over it, and happened to catch a pretty dramatic lightning bolt in the picture.

I was interested to read that the laser had a power of about 20 Watts. A decent green laser pointer has a power of roughly 1/5th of a Watt, so this one is 100 times as powerful. I’ve used a 1 Watt hand-held laser before, and it literally scared me; it was so bright it felt like a weapon. The laser seen above is a lot brighter yet, and they need to have spotters when they’re used to make sure no airplanes are nearby. The beam might (under extraordinary circumstances) damage the plane, and would surely blind the pilot; not a happy circumstance.

Of course, lightning is even more powerful. After this picture gets around, I expect SyFy will air "Megalaser versus Superlightning". Which I would totally watch.

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser


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STUNNING lunar eclipse photo

By Phil Plait | September 5, 2011 6:30 am

Last June, there was a total eclipse of the Moon, and I posted some really nice pictures of it (see Related Posts, below). Later, I saw one that was truly amazing. Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this:

Holy wow! [Click to penumbrenate.]

That picture, by Chris Kotsiopoulos, is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime shot. He took it from Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. He thought he was going to miss the eclipse due to a thunderstorm, but the clouds parted for a few minutes right in the middle of the eclipse, and he got his shot. You can see the Moon, dull red, floating in the sky to the right of center. The multiple lightning strikes are, well, striking. As someone who has tried to take pictures like this many times, what’s even more remarkable to me is that this was a 28 second exposure! That didn’t allow him too many chances to get this shot right.

The next lunar eclipse is on December 10, 2011, and will be visible to Asia and Australia. I haven’t checked it for accuracy, because yikes, but wikipedia has a list of all lunar eclipses in the 21st century, with maps! The one in August 2036 is particularly long. Mark your calendar.

Credit: Chris Kotsiopoulos, used with permission. Tip o’ the lens cap to Earth Science Picture of the Day.


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From space: video of five days of tornadoes

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2011 3:32 pm

Over the past few days, huge storms have exploded over the US midwest. The GOES 13 geostationary weather satellite had a birds-eye view of the whole thing, and its images were used to make animation showing five days of meteorological action:

Wow. It’s positively creepy how those cells burst into life with what looks like no trigger or precursor. They’re just suddenly there. Terrifying.

I was in Kansas over the weekend for my nephew’s college graduation (congrats Derek!), and literally minutes before the ceremony was to start there was a tornado warning. We had to huddle in the building’s basement for about 45 minutes before the all-clear was sounded; the tornado spotted was to the northwest and missed us (although right as the warning started I was able to get a picture of the weird rolling mammatus clouds overhead).

After the ceremony we saw the storm raging to the north of us, and I got this photo of it:

That’s a several second exposure at (I think) f/8. The lightning was never more than 5 – 10 seconds away for quite some time. It was awe-inspiring.

The next day we left Lawrence to come home, and a fierce black cloud stretched from horizon to horizon to our west. It missed us, and by the time we got on the road it was gone… but I have to wonder if that was the same storm system that produced the tornado that swept through Joplin, Missouri. I’ve never seen an actual tornado in real life, but that’s as close as I ever want to come.

If you want to help folks whose lives have been affected by these storms, The Nation has a list of charities and other organizations helping out in Missouri.

Video credit: Movie Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Volcano followup: pix, video

By Phil Plait | May 23, 2011 2:07 pm

Within hours of posting about the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Grimsvötn, I found out that helicopter footage of the plume (with tons of lightning) has been posted on Vimeo by Jon Gustafsson:

Lightning is common in volcanic plumes, but this one produced quite a bit more than usual. The footage is striking. Ha ha.

Also, NASA released a beautiful image of the plume as seen by the Earth-observing Terra satellite:

[Click to hephaestenate.]

Note the scale; the ash column is over 20 km (12 miles) across. I said in the post earlier it reached 11 km in height; however the NASA news release states that it reached over 20 km high!

There is some indication the ash may be a threat to air travel in the UK, too. That’s a bummer; Eyjafjalajökull disrupted air travel for weeks. Let’s hope this one subsides sooner.

Video from Jon Gustafsson on Vimeo; Terra image from Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

The storm below

By Phil Plait | May 19, 2011 7:06 am

I love pictures of the Earth from space. They give us a great perspective on our little planet down here. And sometimes they are simply stunning for their own sake… like this shot of lightning internally illuminating a storm cloud over Brazil:

[Click to 1.21gigawattenate.]

That was taken by astronaut Paolo Nespoli in January 2011 as the Space Station passed overhead. Having lived in several storm-prone areas I’ve seen lightning flash in huge thunderclouds from below, from the side, and even once from above in an airplane (which was awesome and terrifying), but never like this. If it weren’t for the caption on that picture I’d have never guessed what it was. Amazing.

I have to laugh, though: given the language they speak in Brazil, isn’t it funny it looks like a Portuguese Man o’ war?

Image Credit: ESA/NASA


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures
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