A member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at La Silla, Chile was able to capture two elusive atmospheric phenomena in a photograph that would not be out of place among paintings in an art museum – and both events rival each other in beauty. ESO featured it as Image of the Week.
On the right of the photo, there are red sprites. These events were first photographed in 1989, and are associated with thunderstorms. They are electrical discharges, a bit like lightning. However, instead of going down to the ground, they go up in the atmosphere, reaching 50 to 90 kilometers (30 to 55 miles) – almost the conventional edge of space. The color red is due to nitrogen interacting with the electric charges.
The other spectacular feature is the airglow, again due to electric charges but in a different way. It is a green/red hue created by a process called recombination. Oxygen and nitrogen can lose electrons during the day because of sunlight. They gain them back over time emitting light at night. In very dark skies, that process can be seen with the naked eye.
And for good measure, there is also a meteor in the picture. Truly a masterpiece.