The Discovery Of Red Sprites As An Opportunity For Informal Science Education

Lyons, Walter A. and Schmidt, Mickey D. (2003) The Discovery Of Red Sprites As An Opportunity For Informal Science Education. American Meteorlogical Society - Proceedings, 39 (1). pp. 1-4.


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For over 100 years, anecdotal reports in the literature have persisted describing strange, luminous apparitions occurring high above thunderstorms. Even when reported by a Nobel Laureate (C.T.R. Wilson), the veracity of these observations were discounted by the scientific community. That changed in 1989, when by pure chance, a low-light camera system obtained two fields of video showing giant pillars of light extending tens of kilometers above a thunderstorm. Since then thousands of events, now called sprites (and related phenomena: elves, trolls, blue jets) have been imaged, many by the PI. Mesospheric sprites, at 40 to 90 km altitude, are induced by lightning discharges having highly unusual characteristics. The STEPS 2000 field campaign data have begun to ascertain just what is different about the small percentage of lightning flashes which trigger the ghostly sprites near the base of the ionosphere. Using new remote sensing tools, we are gradually unraveling the nature of the giant lightning discharges which spawn sprites. In the process we have also found other unusual electrical discharges atop thunderstorms, such as blue jets. Under NSF supplemental funding to an active research grant, we have produced and distributed (at a subsidized cost) a planetarium show for the general public (40 minutes length) entitled, “The Hundred Year Hunt for the Red Sprite” (a program which has won two major video awards). This informal science education effort documents the application of the scientific method to unraveling a century old mystery surrounding strange lights in the night sky. We contrast this journey of discovery to the pseudo-science prevalent today in topics such as UFOs. With distribution to 25+ planetarium facilities, it is believed that several hundred thousand persons may eventually view the show. A companion home/classroom version of the DVD/video and an educational web site (www.Sky-Fire.TV) allows students and adults who are sufficiently motivated by the planetarium experience to further investigate sprites and related basic science topics. The web site encourages visitors to test their knowledge with answers and “scores” provided much in the manner of a interactive video game. The public is also instructed on how to actively search the sky for these fleeting phenomena, to photograph events recently brought to the attention of science (some by amateurs), and to submit their reports online.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: Astronomy Education Research
Depositing User: Users 1 not found.
Date Deposited: 26 Mar 2017 10:38
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2018 09:25

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