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No. 84: Nov-Dec 1992

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Rocket lightning observed over the South Atlantic
Rocket lightning observed over the South Atlantic in 1964
Scientific disbelief in this phenomenon recedes as observations accumulate. We present below a few short excerpts from a scientific report:

"Video images from space showing a single upward luminous discharge into the clear night air above a thunderstorm were recorded for the first time during the space shuttle STS-32 mission, and later during the STS-31 mission and other missions using the shuttle's payload-bay TV cameras.

"Figure 1 [impossible to reproduce] shows the upward luminous discharge that was seen to move out of the top of a single thunderstorm during the flight of STS-31. This video image was taken at 0335:59 UTC 28 April 1990 while the shuttle was on its 55th orbit and passing over Mauritania, northwest Africa.

"The storm that had the luminous discharge was located at approximately 7.5N, 4.0E, and was about 2000 km from the shuttle's position. The lightning discharge was determined to be at least 31 km long.

"We are now trying to understand the significance in relationship to the earth's atmosphere and the global electric circuit."

(Vaughan, Otha H., Jr., et al; "A Cloud-to-Space Lightning as Recorded by the Space Shuttle Payload-Bay TV Cameras," Monthly Weather Review, 120: 1459, 1992.)

Comment. Somewhere 31 kilometers above the thundercloud, there must have been a concentration of electrical charge that acted as a "terminal" for the bolt. How did it get there?

Reference. A more recent term for "rocket lightning" is "sprite" or "elf." These phenomena are cataloged under GLL1 in the catalog: Lightning, Auroras. For a description of this book, see: here.

From Science Frontiers #84, NOV-DEC 1992. 1992-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987