Directed, produced and written by David Monaghan
ENTIRELY NEW FORMS OF LIGHTNING HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED UP TO 1000 TIMES BIGGER THAN ANY BOLT PREVIOUSLY SEEN. WHILE NORMAL LIGHTNING FIRES DOWN BELOW CLOUDS, THESE GIANT BOLTS SHOOT UP, STUNNING EXPERTS WITH IMAGES OF LIGHTNING 80 KILOMETRES HIGH.
It was if biologists had found a new body part. We just didn't know it was there.
THIS LIGHTNING, SIX TIMES MORE POWERFUL THAN PASSENGER PLANES ARE DESIGNED TO WITHSTAND, MAY BE THE REAL KILLER IN A SPATE OF BAFFLING AIR DISASTERS.
Camera takes photo.
AND FOR THE FIRST TIME WE CAN REVEAL THE PHOTOGRAPH THAT SPARKED A SECRET NASA ENQUIRY.
Zoom into of Goldie photo.
WAS THIS THE PROOF THAT A HIGH ALTITUDE LIGHTNING STRIKE CAUSED THE CRASH OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA?
EACH DAY, THE EARTH IS SHAKEN BY 8 MILLION BOLTS OF THE SKY'S MOST POWERFUL FORCE: LIGHTNING.
Bolt of lightning.
ENERGY FROM ONE BOLT EXPLODES IN SPLIT SECOND, BUT COULD POWER A HOUSEHOLD FOR HALF A YEAR. AT ANY TIME, 1800 STORMS PUMMEL OUR PLANET. EACH ONE IS A GIANT BATTERY. INSIDE A STORM, WATER TURNS TO HAIL. FAILLING ICE CRASHES ON RISING DROPLET, CREATING STATIC ELECTRICITY. CHARGES OF UP TO 100 MILLION VOLTS BUILD UP. ARCS OF ELECTRICITY FIRE OUT. THIS IS LIGHTNING. MORE THAN 90 PERCENT OF ALL BOLTS FIRE WITHIN CLOUDS. BUT A HIGHLY CHARGED STORM WILL FIRE A CASCADE OF ELECTRICAL CHARGE TO EARTH, DRAWN TO THE HIGHEST POINT. A TREE OR A BLADE OF GRASS CAN TRIGGER LIGHTNING, OR EVEN A PERSON. EACH YEAR, 100O PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD DIE FROM DIRECT HIT. A LIGHTNING BOLT IS ONLY 3 CM WIDE. BUT AT 33,000 DEGREES CELCIUS, IT IS HOTTER THAN THE SURFACE OF THE SUN.
THIS HEAT EXPANDS THE SURROUNDING AIR, WHICH EXPLODES OUTWARDS AS THUNDER, THE SOUND OF LIGHTNING.
CGI lightning strike.
A LIGHTNING FLASH TRAVELS AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT; IT'S THUNDER TRAVELS MUCH SLOWER. THE SHORTER THE TIME BETWEEN THE FLASH AND THE THUNDER, THE CLOSER THE LIGHTNING BOLT. FEW CLOUD TO GROUND STRIKES ARE LONGER THAN THREE KILOMETRES. AND TEXTBOOKS SAID NO LIGHTNING COULD EXIST ABOVE THE CLOUDS.
Cloud to ground lighting with measuring rod.
Walt Lyons on balcony.
BUT THEN WEATHERMAN WALT LYONS AIMED HIS CAMERA ACROSS THE COLORADO PLAINS ON JULY 6, 1993.
Mountains through Walt's eye glasses
WHAT HE SAW OVERTURNED 200 YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC CERTAINTY IN AN INSTANT.
Green sprites images.
HE FILMED THESE VIDEO IMAGES. THEY SHOW LIGHTNING 80 KILOMETRES HIGH AND 40 KILOMETRES WIDE FIRING ABOVE THE CLOUDS. THEIR EXISTENCE HAD BEEN DISMISSED AS FANTASY. THEIR DISCOVERY SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON WHAT HAS BEEN CAUSING AIRPLANES TO FALL FROM THE SKY.
Stuart Beecher lights a pipe.
THE DISCOVERY OF MEGA-LIGHTNING BEGAN WITH ORDINARY PEOPLE SEEING EXTRAORDINARY THINGS.
Stills of Beecher in name separated by light flashes.
IN 1969 STUART BEECHER WAS DEFENDING A MORTAR PIT OUTSIDE SAIGON IN SOUTH VIETNAM, WHEN A STORM BROKE.
There was this giant flash of lighting that reached from the ground through the base of the cloud, completed illuminated the cloud, and out the top from the ground, in this beautiful double helix pattern, that seemed to just go on forever. It was just like it was going straight into space.
Amateur photo of above cloud lightning.
Photograph: Tudor Williams
THERE HAD EVEN BEEN PHOTOGRAPHS. THIS WAS TAKEN AT MT ISA IN AUSTRALIA, IN 1968. SCIENTISTS HAD IGNORED THE SIGHTINGS.
Skeet Vaughan flying.
SKEET VAUGHAN, A SENIOR NASA ENGINEER, MET A WITNESS WHO HAD SEEN GIANT LIGHTNING IN 1981. AS A TRAINED PILOT, VAUGHAN TOOK THE SIGHTING SERIOUSLY.
Skeet Vaughan - NASA Engineer 1959-96
I wrote an article in one of the flying magazines, and asked pilots to tell me if they'd seen any unusual lightning, or anything out of the ordinary. A number of pilots, about 19 of them, sent me letters telling me about this kind of a thing.
Pilot walks to letterbox.
PILOT LARRY PARTRIDGE WAS ONE OF THOSE WHO WROTE TO VAUGHN, REVEALING THAT HE'D SEEN GIANT LIGHTNING ABOVE THE CLOUDS GOING UP, AND NOT DOWN.
Larry Partridge, pilot.
All of a sudden, POW! Just a split second, this huge bolt of lightning came out of the top and disappeared into deep blue space. The captain turned to me and said, wide eyed, and said did you see that? And so I said yes, and so we turned and told the flight engineer, and he said, that's impossible. Lightning doesn't go up.
CGI blue jet.
Pilot Robin May flying.
Robin May - pilot
A Strike of lightning appeared to come from the top of the cloud, went straight up, bright white, for ten or 15 thousand feet, then broke up into a lot of little fingers that went through the different colours of the spectrum, and disappeared off into space.
CGI of sprite to show what Larry sees through window of plane.
But most of the pilots had said they'd never talk to people about this, they were somewhat reluctant to, in the case that they were flying at night, and they might think they were having hallucinations or problems. They didn't want to talk about it, and nobody would believe it anyway. Till you have documented evidence, a photograph or something like that.
THE PILOTS WOULD HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL HARD EVIDENCE TURNED TO SHOW THEY WERE NOT HALLUCINATING. THE PROBLEM WAS THAT FEW PEOPLE GET TO SEE ABOVE STORMS, AND THE PILOTS WHO DO RARELY CARRY CAMERAS.
Pilot flying into clouds.
Storm clouds brewing in distance.
BUT IF THE OBSERVER IS BELOW CLEAR SKIES, AND THERE IS A DISTANT STORM, WHAT IS ABOVE THUNDERCLOUDS CAN BE SEEN FROM THE GROUND.
Hands put camera on tripod.
BY CHANCE IN 1989, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTO PHYSICIST FRANZ WINKLER WAS TESTING A CAMERA IN THESE CONDITIONS.
HE WAS FILMING THE SKY ABOVE A STORM 200 KILOMETRES AWAY. ORDINARY LIGHTNING WAS FLASHING BELOW THE HORIZON. WHEN PROFESSOR WINKLER PLAYED BACK THE TAPE, THE SAW SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
CGI Scene and lightning pan up.
THE CAMERA HAD RECORDED A FLASH, ABOVE THE CLOUD TOPS SHOWING TWIN PILLARS OF LIGHT. BUT THIS WAS WHERE LIGHTNING WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO EXIST.
CGI of size of image in Winkler photo.
AT 10 TIMES THE SIZE OF MT EVEREST, THE MYSTERY FLASH DWARFED ANY BOLT EVER RECORDED.
NASA mission control.
THE POSSIBILITY OF GIANT LIGHTNING CAME AT A BAD TIME FOR THE AMERICAN SPACE AGENCY, NASA.
Atlas Military Satellite Launch 1987
THEY HAD CONTINUED THEIR COUNTDOWN ON MARCH 26, 1987, AND LAUNCHED A $100 MILLION MILITARY SATELLITE INTO STORM CLOUDS. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WOULD FORCE NASA TO FACE THE SKY'S MOST POWERFUL FORCE.
Rocket rising into clouds.
END PART 1
BEGIN PART 2
IN 1987, A $100 MILLION ROCKET HAD LIFTED INTO ORBIT FROM CAPE CANAVERAL. NASA ENGINEERS HAD DEFIED THE WEATHER AND LAUNCHED INTO A STORM. CAMERAS TRACKED THE ROCKET, UNTIL IT DISAPEARED INTO CLOUDS. WHEN THE CAMERA PANNED BACK DOWN TO THE LAUNCH PAD, A LIGHTNING BOLT STRUCK.
Lightning bolt hits ground.
THIS IS THE BOLT THAT HAD PASSED THROUGH THE ROCKET, FOLLOWING IT'S EXHAUST PLUME, AND STRUCK THE GROUND NEAR THE LAUNCH PAD.
We have lost telemetry, don't know quite why yet. We have no telemetry data from any source at hangar A-E.
WITH ON-BOARD COMPUTERS BURNT OUT BY LIGHTNING, THE VEHICLE WAS VEERING OFF COURSE. MISSION CONTROL REMOTELY DETONATED THE ROCKET BEFORE IT COULD CRASH INTO POPULATED AREAS.
ASKED IF THEY HAD CONSIDERED THE DANGERS OF LIGHTNING, NASA WERE CAUGHT OFF GUARD.
If lightning hit a rocket as it was going up, what would it do, would it knock out the electrical system?
Well, there could, any number of things that could happen. I think at this point, I don't want to really speculate.
NASA WAS CRITICISED FOR IGNORING THE DANGERS OF LIGHTNING.
Jim Dye, National Oceans and Atmospherics Administration
When a rocket goes up into a cloud, there is a plume of ions below it that extends 2-3 times the length of rocket. So in an essence you have a very long wire, strong fields of 10,20,30 thousand volts per meter. You can generate the equivalent of 1 million volts. So you get a discharge then through the rocket, a plume that then triggers the lightning. In the worse case it could actually potentially blow the rocket up.
WHEN A MYSTERY FLASH WAS FILMED IN 1989, NASA HAD REASON TO FEAR A NEW FORM OF LIGHTNING THAT COULD BLOW UP A ROCKET HIGH ABOVE THE CLOUDS.
Skeet walking camera.
NASA ASKED SKEET VAUGHAN TO FIND EVIDENCE THAT THE PHENOMENA WAS REAL. HE SEARCHED FOR SIMILAR FLASHES IN NASA'S ARCHIVE OF STORMS FILMED FROM EARTH'S ORBIT.
Skeet in front of space shuttle.
We were able to go through probably 17 or twenty hours, and you had to go through each video frame, and you have to identify the video frame, and compare it to what you know to be out there.
Skeet and Bill in front of tapes.
Skeet Vaughan jogs tapes and catches images.
Stills of Skeet's images.
BY 1992, THE DETECTIVE WORK HAD TURNED UP STARTLING IMAGES. THEY SHOWED THE EDGE OF THE EARTH. BRIGHT COLUMNS FIRED UPWARDS 70 KILOMETRES FROM THE CLOUDS, TOWERING BY THE HORIZON.
We found a total of probably nineteen of those things on different shuttle flights, over time.
NASA FEARED THEY MIGHT BE MORE DANGEROUS THAN THE ORDINARY LIGHTNING THAT HAD PREVIOUSLY HIT THEIR ROCKET. A RACE BEGAN TO FIND OUT IF THESE WERE GIANT BOLTS. AND IF THEY COULD BRING DOWN THE SPACE SHUTTLE.
Sprite from space.
NASA TURNED TO WALT LYONS, A WORLD EXPERT IN THE DETECTION OF DISTANT LIGHTNING STRIKES. NASA HAD USED HIS SKILLS TO MAKE LAUNCHES SAFER AFTER THE 1987 DISASTER. THEIR ROCKET SAFETY TEAM NOW SHARED THEIR CONCERNS OVER THE NEW DISCOVERY.
It appeared this whole new form of lightning not going down but going up.
Pan of Colorado plain view from Walt's place.
Naturally the safety people were concerned and said, we'd better find out about this.
Walt on Roof showing camera.
WALT LYON'S OBSERVATORY ON YUCCA RIDGE WAS PERFECT FOR HUNTING LIGHTNING. COLORADO'S CLEAR SKIES OFFERED VIEWS ABOVE STORMS UP TO A THOUSAND MILES AWAY IN TORNADO ALLEY. THE PRIARIE STATES HIT BY THE WORST OF THE 20 MILLION LIGHTNING BOLTS THAT STRIKE THE UNITED STATES EACH YEAR. NASA GAVE LYONS THE JOB TO FILM ABOVE STORMS TO SEE IF THE MYSTERY FLASHES MIGHT BE A THREAT. HE ORDERED A REMOTE CAMERA TO MOUNT ON TOP OF HIS OBSERVATORY.
This very camera here came on 6th July 1993. We took it out of the box that very evening, we put it on a tripod and lo and behold, it was a massive thunderstorm going on out in Kansas, about 300 kilometers away. It was lighting up the whole sky and I said, aha, this looks good, and I just sat and waited.
LYONS SET UP THE CAMERA AND LINKED IT BACK TO THE VIDEO RECORDER IN HIS VIEWING ROOM.
It was eleven o'clock and it was really fun to watch the lightning on this video enhanced image. Looking at it, that's impressive that's nice, twelve o'clock, nice but not much was happening.
Lightning storm to music.
LYONS WAS WEARY FROM MONITORING THE STORM, WHEN HE SUDDENLY SAW FLASHES THAT DID NOT BEHAVE LIKE ORDINARY LIGHTNING
Then: Bing! I saw something on the screen and said, what was that? And then another, and I said, oh boy. By the time the sun came up around four thirty, we had seen two hundred and fifty of these bings. We just picked the right light with the right storm, the perfect location. It was classic beginners luck.
IN ONE NIGHT WALT LYONS HAD PROVED THE PHENOMENA WAS REAL. BUT IT STILL HAD NO NAME.
A friend suggested calling them Sprites, which shows up in Shakespeare's plays. I said, that's a beautiful name, that's perfect, because it's a sort of fleeting, ephemeral type of creature, and it doesn't imply something about the physics.
Matt Heavner on tarmac with plane.
A YEAR AFTER WALT LYONS' DISCOVERY, A UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA TEAM SET OUT TO PHOTOGRAPH THE SPRITES FROM THE AIR, UP CLOSE AND IN COLOUR. STUDENT MATT HEAVNER VOLUNTEERED FOR THE MISSION.
They basically needed someone to operate the cameras and hit record on the VCR and figure out where to fly and things like that.
THE FLIGHTS TOOK PLACE ON THE NIGHT OF AMERICA'S FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATIONS.
Storms and sprites.
In term of danger that may be associated with the sprites, since we were in aeroplanes flying around the storms, there was certainly a danger to us, and in general, the pilots were more worried about that than we were, so we trusted their judgment enough to keep us far enough from the storms that we weren't in danger
AS THE FIREWORKS EXPLODED BELOW, MATT HEAVNER'S CAMERA CAPTURED WHAT NO ONE HAD SEEN BEFORE. THE SPRITES WERE COLOURED A VIVID BLOOD RED.
I remember a few storms where we were seeing sprites maybe 3 or 4 times a minute and that was pretty exciting.
IN ONE NIGHT, THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS HAD BAGGED HUNDREDS OF IMAGES THAT HAD REVEALED THE TRUE COLOUR OF SPRITES. THEY WERE RED AND BLUE NEON-TYPE GLOWS, A SIGN THAT SPRITES MIGHT BE EXPLOSIONS OF ELECTRICITY EXCITING GASES IN THE HIGH ATMOSPHERE. FROM THE GROUND OBSERVATORY AT COLORADO, WALT LYONS FILMED ANOTHER PECULIARITY. THE SPRITES APPEARED TO BE DANCING ACROSS THE CLOUD TOPS.
CGI dancing sprites.
BUT WERE THE SPRITES JUST A TRICK OF THE LIGHT? ORDINARY LIGHTNING GAVE WARNING OF ITS POWER WITH THE SOUND OF THUNDER. IF SPRITES MADE A SIMILAR SOUND, IT WOULD PROVE THEM TO BE MORE THAN A MIRAGE.
A sprite is very implosive: BOOM! Like that, which means a lot of air is potentially being heated and/or pushed round so I wondered, could there be some analogy to thunder produced by a sprite?
Dr Alfred Beddard.
So I knew Al Beddard in Boulder here.
Dr Beddard walks into sensor area.
DR ALFRED BEDDARD, WHO WOULD HUNT FOR SPRITE THUNDER, HAD BEEN A GUARDIAN OF WORLD SECURITY DURING IN THE COLD WAR.
Narrator of Fifties propaganda film:
If the communist bloc does attack, our radar sites and observers will sound the alert.
Atom bomb explosion.
DR BEDDARD'S AUDIO ARRAY NEAR BOULDER, COLORADO, CAN HEAR THE FREQUENCIES UNDETECTABLE BY HUMAN EARS CALLED INFRA-SOUND.
Sea and clouds before atom test.
Three, two, one.
UNTIL THE ADVENT OF SATELLITES, HIS SYSTEM WAS THE MAIN WARNING OF ROGUE ATOM BOMB TESTS. HE CAN DETECT SOUND FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. IF HE COULD MEASURE INFRA-SOUND FROM SPRITES, IT WOULD SHOW THEY HAD ENOUGH POWER TO FIRE OUT ON THE SAME SPECTRUM AS AN ATOM BOMB.
Dr Beddard looks at screen.
We detected sounds from sprites...these were detected here in Boulder
DR BEDDARD CAN MAKE THE SUB-AUDIBLE SOUND OF THE SPRITE HEARD, BY PLAYING IT BACK THROUGH A PROGRAMME IN HIS COMPUTER.
Beddard leaves detector fence.
There's a very very loud vicious rumbling and all of this is sub-audible but when you play it back at high speeds, you wouldn't want to get near something like that.
Sprite explodes with infra-sound thunder recording.
NO COMMUNIST ATOM BOMB HAD ESCAPED DR BEDDARD'S INFRA-SONIC ARRAY. NOW RED SPRITES MIGHT BE TRACKED FAR AWAY, EVEN THOSE THAT FLASHED DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS. THE SPRITES COULD BE HEARD. THEY NEEDED TO BE EXAMINED IN GREATER DETAIL. PROFESSOR UMRAN INAN, A LEADING PHYICIST OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY, WOULD UNLEASH HIS STUDENTS TO PEER INSIDE THEIR FIERY HEARTS.
So I encouraged one of our students. Elizabeth Gherken. I said, Elizabeth why don't we do telescopic measures of this?
Elizabeth Gherken in big telescope.
Close up of inside of sprites.
What we saw in the first few images of some sprites at least, were consisting of just a whole lot of hundreds of filaments forming the body of the sprite.
Inan looks into telescope.
INAN'S TELESCOPE HELPED PROVE THAT A SPRITE, WHICH AT FIRST WAS THOUGHT TO SHOOT UP, ACTUALLY FIRES DOWNWARDS.
CGI lightning channels.
THEY WERE NOT A SINGLE BOLT, BUT IN A MULTITUDE OF INTER-LACED LIGHTNING CHANNELS. THE PICTURE WAS BEING COMPLETED.
Pan up to cloud in CGI and see stopped lightning bolt.
TO SEE GIANT LIGHTNING, TIME MUST BE STOPPED. THIS IS BECAUSE SPRITES HAPPEN EVEN FASTER THAN THE BLINK OF AN EYE. SPRITES ARE GENERATED IN THE ELECTRIC FIELD ABOVE A STORM. THE FIRST THING SEEN IS A FLAT DISC CALLED A HALO. IT APPEARS AT A HEIGHT OF 85 KILOMETRES. THE ELECTRIC FIELD MUST BE STRONG ENOUGH FOR THE HALO TO GROW INTO A SPRITE. ELECTRICITY FLOWS DOWN TO MAKE A RED BALLOON OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY THE SIZE OF A MOUNTAIN RANGE. AS THE ELECTRICTY TRAVELS LOWER DOWN, DENSER AIR SQUEEZES THE CURRENT INTO 30 METRE WIDE FILAMENTS. THE SPRITE SHOWER A HUNDRED SQUARE KILOMETRES OF THESE BLUE LIGHTNING SHARDS ONTO CLOUD TOPS, AND THEN DISAPPEARS. BUT WHAT WAS PULLING VAST CURRENTS FROM SPACE TO MAKE HUGE TOWERS OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY? COULD SOME MONSTROUS FORCE CONJURE SPRITES FROM BELOW THE CLOUDS? AND COULD THIS IN TURN HELP EXPLAIN SOME OF THE MOST MYSTERIOUS AIR DISASTERS SINCE THE DAWN OF THE JET AGE?
Sunset rise behind clouds.
Colour film of jet crash site.
1950s jet plane in flight.
Interiors of 1950s jet plane.
THE GLAMOUROUS ADVERTISING FOR THE NEW JETS HAD HELPED FOSTER THE MYTH THAT LIGHTNING COULD NOT HIT A PLANE IN FLIGHT.
50s advertising footage.
The jet age is now here. Flying will be above the weather.
BUT JETS WEREN'T IMMUNE TO WEATHER. LIGHTNING WAS STRIKING PLANES OFTEN.
Pierre La Rouche
Pierre La Rouche:
About each 1500-hour of flight which is about 1 or 2 lightning flash per aircraft per year. It's not a rare event, it's a very common event and aircraft has to be very well protected against it.
Lightning hits plane wing.
PLANES ARE NOT USUALLY HARMED BY LIGHTNING. ALTHOUGH STRIKES REACH 100 MILLION VOLTS, THEY LAST ONLY MILLISECONDS. THE METAL SKIN OF A JETPLANE ALLOWS THE ELECTRICITY TO PASS THROUGH HARMLESSLY, LEAVING ONLY SUPERFICIAL DAMAGE.
Lightning damage holes in wing.
Newspaper headline “air disaster” under lightning bolt.
BUT HERE WAS A DEADLY CONUNDRUM - LIGHTNING STRIKES HAVE KILLED 483 PEOPLE IN FIVE MAJOR PLANE CRASHES IN 30 YEARS. THE DISASTER THAT ENDED THE MYTH THAT JETS WERE SAFE FROM LIGHTNING HAPPENED IN 1963. A RECORDING EXISTS OF THE MOMENT.
Emergency services voice:
We have a plane crash at 59. There's been a plane crash. Plane Crash on Delancey Road just east of Elkton 906.
Photos of night crash scene,
Colour 8mm film, Elton crash scene.
THE EMERGENCY SERVICES TAPE RECORDS THE AFTERMATH OF PAN AMERICAN FLIGHT 214. ON DESCENT TO PHILADELPHIA IN 1963, THE PLANE FLEW INTO A STORM THEN CRASHED INTO A CORNFIELD KILLING ALL 81 PEOPLE ABOARD. THE OFFICIAL ENQUIRY BLAMED A FUEL TANK EXPLOSION, BUT SAID A “MASSIVE LIGHTNING STRIKE” HAD BLOWN OFF PART OF A WING AND BURNT THROUGH RIVETS.
Pic of wing of plane.
IF PLANES WERE SAFE FROM ORDINARY LIGHTNING, WHAT HAD BROUGHT DOWN FLIGHT 214?
Weathermen at blackboard.
WEATHERMEN WOULD HAVE TO THROW AWAY THEIR TEXT BOOKS TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY.
If you go back you look at the textbooks from twenty to thirty years ago, most people thought that lightning was a giant spark that had a negative charge down to the ground.
1930s film about lightning.
SCIENTISTS HAD KNOWN SINCE 1773 THAT LIGHTNING WAS ELECTRICITY. ELECTRICITY WAS FOUND TO COME IN TWO TYPES, THAT EITHER REPEL OR ATTRACT. THESE ARE CALLED NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE CHARGE. WELL INTO THE 1970S, WEATHERMEN KNEW OF ONLY ONE TYPE OF LIGHTNING: NEGATIVE CHARGED BOLTS.
With the advent of other systems to look at what's going on inside of the lightning, we found that a number of them worked in reverse. They lowered positive charge to the ground. These became known as positive lightning.
CGI positive bolt.
We didn't realize there were such major differences. They don't just strike but they strike and just burn away for hundreds and hundreds of milliseconds, which is an eternity when you're being lit up by 15,000 kilo amps.
POSITIVE LIGHTNING COULD EXPLAIN THE ELKTON ENIGMA.
The Elkton crash was during winter, and there isn't much lightning in the northeast of the United States, but when there is, it tends to be positive. There is a fair amount of lightning in intense snowstorms, and our experience has often shown that it's positive and very powerful.
CGI positive bolt and lightning.
FLIGHT 214 HAD BEEN ENGULFED BY THE TYPE OF STORM BRISTLING WITH POSITIVE LIGHTNING. A POSTIVE BOLT WOULD UNLEASH MANY TIMES THE CURRENT, AND BURN FAR LONGER THAN ORDINARY LIGHTNING. A STRIKE BY POSITIVE LIGHTNING COULD EXPLAIN THE FATE OF FLIGHT 214.
CGI OF sprite above positive lightning.
BUT UNTIL A PLANE CRASH INVESTIGATOR SAW HIS FRIEND BLASTED FROM THE SKY, THE TRUE POWER OF THIS NEW FORM OF POSITIVE LIGHTNING WOULD REMAIN A MYSTERY.
END PT 2
IN 1993 THE WORLD OF WEATHERMEN HAD BEEN ROCKED BY THE DISCOVERY OF A GIANT FORM OF LIGHTNING ABOVE THE CLOUDS. THEY HAD ONLY RECENTLY FOUND ANOTHER BREED OF SUPER BOLTS BELOW THE CLOUDS CALLED POSITIVE LIGHTNING.
Peter Claiden flying in plane.
THE ROLE OF POSITIVE LIGHTNING IN AIR ACCIDENTS WOULD NEVER HAVE WON OFFICIAL RECOGNITION, IF PLANE CRASH INVESTIGATOR PETER CLAIDEN HAD NOT SEEN HIS FRIEND STRUCK BY LIGHTNING. THE DRAMA BEGAN THE LONDON GLIDING CLUB.
The day looked reasonable started off with low cloud and cleared to nice blue sunny April day and it was nice day for flying. We took the glider from the hangar and took it to the launch point. I wasn't aware Peter was flying because there were a lot of people flying that day.
Glider Pilot Peter Goldstraw:
I didn't take any particular notice of the dark cloud
That whole section of sky was black evil looking black . And it was slowly encroaching on the airfield.
And that's when things went wrong.
Well, I had landed and taxied in and I was keeping an eye on the sky as pilots generally do, and suddenly there was this very bright streak of light diagonally across the sky.
Glider Pilot Peter Goldstraw:
The force of the explosion had burst both my eardrums, I was aware of what was obviously a glider, descending nose down, rotating as it did so. I do remember all my clothes fluttering wildly, I remember pulling the ripcord, and I then remember being surrounded with like, autumn leaves, all the little bits of glider that were fluttering to the ground.
Still of glider ruin on ground.
PETER CLAIDEN REALISED THAT IF HIS PLANE HAD BEEN HIT, HE WOULD HAVE BEEN KILLED. HE HAD NOT BEEN WEARING A PARACHUTE.
Had I been struck by lightning almost certainly I wouldn't be standing here now.
THE CRASH WAS A MYSTERY. GLIDERS HAD BEEN STRUCK BEFORE AND HAD SURVIVED. PETER CLAIDEN WANTED TO KNOW WHY THIS BOLT WAS SO DEVASTATING.
I thought this might be a very good opportunity to look at the subject of lightning, and we discussed ways in which we may be able to quantify the level of energy in the strike by test work at the laboratories.
Inside Manchester testing laboratory.
THE LABORATORY COULD SIMULATE ORDINARY LIGHTNING. BUT DAMAGE TO THE GLIDER WAS VERY MUCH OUT OF THE ORDINARY.
This actually came from the glider which was struck, and it hasn't actually melted, what you can actually see, is the magnetic forces, which have crushed the pipe down, and this is indicative of the fact that it was a very severe strike, which took this glider.
Electricity boom on model gilder.
Testers approach glider.
To simulate the lightning strike, we actually use an impulse generator, that can generate over a million volts.
Lab dials go up.
THE LAB FOUND OUT THEIR MACHINES WERE TOO WEAK TO REPLICATE THE IMMENSE FORCE THAT DESTROYED THE GLIDER.
Air Accident Investigation.
THIS FINDING HAD OMINOUS IMPLICATIONS.
Accident investigation lecture door pan, to Claiden at lectern.
It was concluded putting all the figures together it was concluded by everybody who worked on this hat it could have been up to six times the level that aircraft are designed to tolerate with minimal damage. Six times.
THOUGH THEY LOOK LIKE A NORMAL BOLT, THIS POSITIVE LIGHTNING CAN BURN TEN TIMES AS LONG AND UNLEASH SIX TIMES THE POWER OF ORDINARY NEGATIVE STRIKES.
CGI of lightning bolts.
THE KILLER LIGHTNING TRAVELLED WITH AN EVEN BIGGER ACCOMPLICE.
We were able to take pictures of sprites above storms while we're able to map lightning going on inside of the storm. We've never been able to do this before. We went back and got the raw lightning data and for every sprite there was a positive lightning.
POSITIVE LIGHTNING AND SPRITES WERE ONE CONTINOUS FORCE, THAT STRETCHED FROM THE EDGE OF SPACE TO WHERE ORDINARY PLANES FLY.
Model plane being struck by electricity.
REGULATORS HAD SET AIRLINER SAFETY THRESHOLDS FOR LIGHTNING BEFORE THE DISCOVERY OF SPRITES. THE WORLD'S AIRLINES FLY WITH SHIELDING TO WITHSTAND ONLY A SIXTH OF THE AWESOME POWER INFLICTED BY THE POSITIVE LIGHTNING FIRED BELOW THE SPRITES.
What we're learning is that there's a whole sub-class of extremely energetic positive cloud to ground lightning that lower as maybe ten times more current to ground than the old text books said you should get.
THERE WAS POTENTIAL SALVATION.
We're able now to actually use the sprite as a sort of coal miners' canary, because when you see a sprite out there, it means that there's an exceptionally unusual lightning discharge in the cloud below.
THE SPRITES THEMSELVES MIGHT BE USED AS NEON SIGNS WARNING OF THE POSITIVE LIGHTNING BELOW.
CGI of dancing sprites.
POSITIVE LIGHTNING WAS DEADLY. AND THE SPRITE ABOVE ENGULED A THOUSAND TIMES THE VOLUME OF AIR WITH ELECTRICAL CHARGE. COULD ROCKETS BE CAUGHT IN THE BELLY OF THIS BEAST? NASA FUNDED THE FIRST SPRITE HUNT IN 1993 TO FIND OUT.
NASA was worried that many of the spacecraft like the shuttle weren't designed to take lightning discharges and so if the shuttle was flying through sprites what was the possible effect be on the shuttle or any other spacecraft
IN 1996 WALT LYONS REPORTED TO NASA ON THE DANGERS OF SPRITES. HE CONCLUDED THAT THEIR VAST SIZE SPREAD OUT THEIR ENERGY, MAKING THEM UNLIKELY KILLERS - BUT CAUTIONED NOT ENOUGH WAS KNOWN TO BE CERTAIN THEY WERE HARMLESS.
We concluded that the space shuttle was probably not endangered by a Sprite. But I'm not sure I'd be the first astronaut to fly through one either. We just don't know for sure and we still don't know everything.
it works out that if you had about a hundred descents into Kennedy in the Midwest over summer nighttime periods you'd have about one chance in that hundred involved in the envelope of a Sprite.
Shuttle takes off/ inside control room.
NASA TOOK THEIR CHANCES ON THE 107th SHUTTLE MISSION IN JANUARY 2003. NO EXTRA SHIELDING FROM THE NEW FORMS OF LIGHTNING HAD BEEN INSTALLED. BUT THE SHUTTLE WAS TO HUNT FOR THE GIANT BOLTS, ALONGSIDE 200 OTHER SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS.
Yoav Yair looks at laptop.
THE SPRITE HUNT HAD BEEN INSPIRED BY ISRAEL'S LEADING LIGHTNING RESEARCHER, YOAV YAIR.
Yoav Yair looks at observatory opening.
I came up with sprite research from space during the night part of orbit.
Yoav Yair - Open University Of Tel Aviv
There were earlier tries to try and look at sprites from space, but we had a superior instrument on board so we figured out we could do a really good job in hunting those elusive sprites.
YOAV'S FRIEND, ISRAEL'S FIRST ASTRONAUT, ILAN RAMON, WAS TO FILM LIGHTNING FROM INSIDE THE SHUTTLE.
Ilan Ramon, Israeli Astronaut, Columbia Mission
These new phenomena was new for the scientists and they are trying to figure out what it is all about and our camera is actually the best way to monitor and try to catch these sprites going up to space.
Launch of shuttle Columbia.
THE SHUTTLE CREW PURSUED GIANT LIGHTNING DURING 42 NIGHT ORBITS.
Images of earth from shuttle & storms.
Astronauts inside shuttle.
This is mission control Houston, pilot Willy McCool operating the Medex experiment or the Mediterranean Israeli dust experiment with one of its secondary observations being to look for the sprites or the lightning phenomena associated with the thunderclouds in the lower ionosphere or upper most atmosphere of the earth.
THE SHUTTLE CREW FILMED HOURS OF VIDEO OF GIANT STORMS LIKE THIS FROM SPACE. THEY FOLLOWED LIGHTNING ILLUMINATING THE CLOUDS FROM BELOW TO PINPOINT THE AREA WHERE SPRITES WOULD EXPLODE ABOVE THE CLOUDS AT THE EDGE OF SPACE.
Storms filmed from shuttle.
Astronaut radio voice:
And Houston we're back, we're tracking some good storms again.
VIDEO OF THE FIRST STORMS WAS BEAMED BACK TO MISSION CONTROL. THE FINAL TAPES WERE KEPT ON BOARD TO BE HANDED DIRECTLY TO YOAV YAIR. BUT THE HAND-OVER FROM THE MOST AMBITIOUS HUNT YET FOR GIANT LIGHTNING WAS NEVER TO HAPPEN.
Space from payload bay of shuttle.
AT THE END OF A 16-DAY MISSION, THE SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA WAS RE-ENTERING THE EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE ABOVE THE COAST OF CALIFORNIA.
Long shot Columbia re-entering.
ON BOARD WERE THE FILMS OF STORMS FROM SPACE THAT COULD HELP SCIENTISTS UNDERSTAND GIANT LIGHTNING.
On the morning of February 1st we were expecting the re-entry of the shuttle, watching the big screens and chatting away.
A CREW MEMBER FILMED THE LAST MOMENTS INSIDE THE COCKPIT. SUPER-HEATED AIR CAN BE SEEN FLICKERING ACROSS THE PORTHOLE AS IT RE-ENTERS THE ATMOSPHERE AT 27,000 MILES AN HOUR.
You definitely don't want to be outside of there now.
CAMERAS INSIDE MISSION CONTROL AT HOUSTON RECORDED THE LAST COMMUNICATIONS.
Everything look good to you, control, and rates is normal, right.
THE SHUTTLE VIDEO TAPE CUTS OFF ABRUPTLY. RADIO MESSAGES ARE ANSWERED ONLY BY STATIC. MISSION CONTROL WAS UNAWARE THAT CAMERAMAN OUTSIDE WERE ALREADY FILMING WHAT WAS LEFT OF THE SHUTTLE HURTLING TO THE GROUND.
Inside shuttle control room.
Lock the door, lock the door.
We got all this terrible sinking feeling.
Reaction at NASA control room.
Controller holds face.
People started crying, I started crying, I couldn't hold myself, it was really really hard, really really hard.
Searchers look for wreckage.
SEARCHERS FANNED OUT ACROSS THE STATES OF LOUSIANA AND TEXAS TO GATHER WRECKAGE. ALL OF THE ASTRONAUTS WHO HAD BEEN SENT TO HUNT GIANT LIGHTNING WERE KILLED. IMMEDIATELY THERE WAS FEAR THAT THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS HAD BEEN BROUGHT DOWN BY THE PHENOMENA THEY WERE SENT TO RECORD.
As part of my work now at Los Alamos, I operate a ground-based array of lightning detectors, and it was rather early in the morning, I got a call from Murray Pongras, one of my supervisors at the lab, and he says have you seen the news yet? I said no, he said, well, save all your data because the shuttle just disappeared.
When we heard that the break-up began around the West Coast, we went and checked the weather there and so these sprites jump into your mind.
CGI DANCING sprites.
San Francisco street scene.
A FURTHER SHOCK FOR THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS CAME FROM SAN FRANCISCO.
Camera at San Francisco being lined up.
ANOTHER CAMERAMAN HAD PHOTOGRAPHED THE DESCENT OF THE SHUTTLE.
CGI image of shuttle in camera viewer.
And then it came out, there was this photo associating it with lightning
UNTIL AMATEUR ASTRONOMER PETER GOLDIE LOOKED AT THE PHOTOS ON HIS COMPUTER, HE HAD NO IDEA ANYTHING HAD GONE WRONG WITH THE SHUTTLE'S RE-ENTRY.
When I saw the picture and heard the television in the background suggesting that things were amiss, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Fingers to screen.
THE PICTURE THAT SHOCKED GOLDIE SHOWED THE BRIGHT LINE MADE AS THE COLUMBIA STREAKED BY IN THE EIGHT SECONDS OF HIS TIME LASPE PHOTO.
Animation of streak.
Close up of lightning hit.
IT HAD BEEN HIT BY A PURPLE CORKSCREW OF LIGHT.
I didn't know what it was, but by all appearance it appeared to be a lightning bolt.
THE APPARENT BOLT STRUCK TWO SECONDS BEFORE A BRIGHTER GLOW SIGNALLED THAT THE CRAFT WAS BREAKING INTO PIECES. SIX MINUTES LATER THE SHUTTLE EXPLODED. WHEN A NEWSPAPER GOT WIND OF THE PHOTO, THE KILLING POTENTIAL OF MEGA-LIGHTNING WAS FRONT PAGE NEWS.
News headline outside Chronicle building.
Camera taken from tripod.
THE PAPER HAD SEEN THE PHOTO, BUT WAS FORBIDDEN FROM PUBLISHING IT. NASA HAD SENT AN AGENT TO COLLECT THE IMAGE AND THE CAMERA.
I think initial evidence from the photo, that possibly sprites were responsible for the disaster, was kind of a shock in that way, these were benign friendly things to study, and now they might have serious implications.
Professor Inan walks down corridor.
THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS NOW TURNED DETECTIVE TO FIND OUT IF SPRITES WERE THE KILLER.
Prof Inan at desk.
There was a photograph and there was some concern that the shuttle during re-entry of course did go through the altitudes that sprites and other high altitude electrical phenomena occur. So to cover all bases NASA was interested in making sure that any possible evidence of electrical effects is thoroughly considered.
BUT THE LAST RECORDINGS OF COLUMBIA'S HUNT FOR GIANT LIGHTNING HAD BEEN LOST IN THE CRASH.
RESCUERS COMBED THROUGH DEBRI. IT TOOK TWO WEEKS TO FIND THE TAPES. THEY WERE AIRLIFTED TO ISRAEL, WHERE THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS WERE COPING WITH THE DEATH OF ILAN RAMON, THEIR COUNTRYMAN SENT TO PHOTOGRAPH THE BOLTS.
Ilan Ramon, astronaut.
This science work, it's the heritage of the crew for us. So far we have only looked at 1 hour, even less, and we have found at least 50 confirmed events, what we call images, that we are sure are either sprites above thunderstorms. Some of them we don't know what we saw.
Yoav Yair moves along corridor.
Yoav Yair at Versailles presentation.
AMONG THE FIRST IMAGES MADE PUBLIC FROM COLUMBIA'S LIGHTNING HUNT WAS A METEOR RE-ENTRY, APPARENTLY SPARKING A BOLT OF GIANT LIGHTNING.
Yoav addressing meeting:
The first meteor coming in here, some lightning below, and this is the sprite.
Columbia crew saying “In memory of”
WAS IT POSSIBLE THAT THE SHUTTLE HAD ACTED LIKE A METEOR, Its RE-ENTRY TRAIL TURNING COLUMBIA INTO A LIGHTING ROD, ATTRACTING A GIANT BOLT?
Re-play of CGI of bolt hitting Columbia.
NASA'S SUB-PANEL CONSIDERED THIS HORRIFIC POSSIBILITY IN SECRET. MEANWHILE, THE PUBLIC WAS BEING TOLD WING DAMAGE AND MISMANGEMENT HAD CAUSED THE ACCIDENT.
The first cause was the foam that came off and hit the, hit the re-enforced carbon. The second was the loss within NASA of its systems of checks and balances.
NASA'S PROBE INTO THE SHUTTLE LIGHTNING STRIKE WAS NEVER MADE PUBLIC. THE REASON: FEAR HAD TURNED TO EMBARASSMENT, THEN RELIEF. EXPERTS WHO CHECKED THE SAN FRANCISCO PHOTO CONCLUDED THE IMAGE OF LIGHTNING PROBABLY CAUSED BY A CAMERA WOBBLE.
Our conclusion was that there was no evidence for any electrical activity at the altitudes that the shuttle went through in the region of the earth that it went through. There was a camera shot. It turned out to most likely be an artifact of the particular camera.
THE GIANT LIGHTNING WAS DISMISSED AS A GHOST IN THE MACHINE.
BUT THE MAN WHO HAD BEEN AMERICA'S LOOK OUT FOR ROGUE ATOMIC TEST HAD HEARD SOMETHING VERY REAL IN THE RE-ENTRY PATH OF THE DOOMED SPACE SHUTTLE.
END PT 3
BEGIN PART 4
NASA scientists examine space shuttle debris.
A SECRET NASA PROBE HAD STUDIED A PHOTO APPARENTLY SHOWING LIGHTNING HITTING THE SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA SECONDS BEFORE IT BROKE UP. WHILE IT WAS CONCLUDING THAT NO LIGHTNING HAD STRUCK, NEW EVIDENCE EMERGED.
Atom bomb blast.
AMERICA'S EXPERT IN THE DETECTION OF DISTANT ATOM BOMB TESTS, DR ALFRED BEDDARD, HAD BEEN THE FIRST TO CONFIRM SPRITE THUNDER. HIS INFRA-SONIC ARRAY WAS LISTENING WHEN THE SHUTTLE WENT DOWN.
My wife and I were watching television, and we were looking at the re-entry, and all of a sudden things were not normal, and it became evident that it was a true tragedy.
Graphic lines from Beddard detector.
So at that point we knew, we had detected re-entries in the past, and we looked at our data to make sure we had something and it looked like we did.
THE DETECTORS HAD HEARD A SINISTER SOUND BEFORE THE SHUTTLE'S BREAK UP.
We'll start this playing. So this is an hour of data in real time. This is compressed in time to nine seconds. So we're actually able to hear the infrasound, I call it infra audio, as a compressed audio track. So what you're hearing, are the bursts of energy early, right in through here. Then that hollow thud.
THE SIGNAL SHOWED THERE'D BEEN AN ENERGY BURST OUTSIDE THE SHUTTLE BEFORE IT DISINTERGRATED. LIKE THE SOUND OF A DISTANT GUNSHOT, THIS WAS EVIDENCE OTHER FORCES WERE IN PLAY.
It had the characteristics of a geophysical kind of an event of some sort. As I have said at this range in the past, we've had signals quite similar, that were associated with good-sized earthquakes.
Shuttle with earthquake sound.
THE BOMB DETECTORS HAD MEASURED A HUGELY POWERFUL EVENT. THE FORCE OF AN EARTHQUAKE HIGH IN THE SKY. ITS EPICENTRE WAS ESTIMATED TO BE IN THE FLIGHTPATH OF THE DOOMED SHUTTLE.
The best guess around here, perhaps San Francisco, perhaps a little bit south of here.
DR BEDDARD HAD HEARD SOMETHING LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE CROSSED WITH THE SOUND OF A SPRITE. WHAT COULD IT BE?
The chances are that the sprite per se is not going to be a threat to the space shuttle but there are creatures out there, which we shouldn't be so sure about.
COULD COLUMBIA HAVE TRIGGERED AN UNKNOWN WEATHER PHENOMENA FROM THE FORCE THAT UNLEASHED THE EARTHQUAKE-SIZED RUMBLE?
Alaskan colour footage above storm.
WHEN NASA'S ALASKAN RESEARCHERS FLEW A SPECIAL COLOUR CAMERA ABOVE STORMS IN 1994, THEY WERE STUNNED TO FIND A MORE AGRESSIVE TYPE OF BOLT NO ONE HAD SEEN BEFORE.
Jet storm footage.
It was a storm over Arkansas, and first of all the storm was almost continuously illuminated. There was so much lightning going on down below, and then the jets were shooting off maybe once every 10 seconds at peak, and so you'd just see these spouts of light, and all this lightning going on down below, that was amazing, that was unlike any storm I've seen before.
EVEN FROM 150 KILOMETRES AWAY, THE BLUE JET, HIGHLIGHTED HERE, CAN BE SEEN BURSTING UP FROM THE CLOUD TOPS. IT ERUPTS 15 KILOMETRES, FIVE TIMES THE REACH OF AN AVERAGE LIGHTNING BOLT. APART FROM THE ALASKAN FOOTAGE, LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT THEIR POWER, AND WHERE THEY STRIKE.
I remember the first time I saw the video I was absolutely stunned. I couldn't believe what I was seeing because that wasn't predicted by anybody. That was a total shock.
A BIGGER SHOCK WAS TO COME. JUST MONTHS BEFORE THE SHUTTLE CRASHED, A SERIES OF BLUE JETS WERE FILMED THAT DWARFED ANY RECORDED BEFORE. FIRST, LIGHTNING HUNTERS IN PUERTO RICO CAUGHT THIS FILM OF POTENTIALLY THE MOST POWERFUL TYPE OF LIGHTNING YET RECORDED. THEN OFF TAIWAN'S COAST, RESEARCHERS FILMED THESE TOWERING BOLTS ERUPTING 80 KILOMETRES INTO SPACE FROM THE TOP OF A DISTANT STORM.
They got this enormous column of light coming out from the cloud top all the way to the atmosphere. They could see it with their naked eye, a screaming brilliant blue. Seems to be far more than the blue jets we saw in 1984. It may be an entirely new phenomena, or just an incredible energetic form of the old blue jet. We still don't know what it is for sure.
Giant jet montage of five stills.
ONLY FIVE GIGANTIC JETS HAVE BEEN CAPTURED ON FILM. THEIR KILLING POTENTIAL REMAINS UNKNOWN.
It's a whole menagerie out there, it's a zoo, there could be other types of discharges and emissions in the upper atmosphere.
THE LIGHTNING HUNTERS WERE BACK WHERE THEY HAD BEEN WHEN THE FIRST IMAGES CONFIRMED MEGA-LIGHTNING WAS NO FAIRYTALE.
In terms of the middle atmosphere, there are still unknowns, and new discoveries to be made. It definitely should be studied in terms of both manned and un-manned space flights.
There's a lot of things happening above the cloud tops that we never knew ten years ago and perhaps we haven't designed properly for.
Montage of lightning CGI.
THE HIGHER WE FLY INTO THE REALMS OF THE MEGA-LIGHTNING, THE MORE CERTAIN WE ARE TO ENCOUNTER BEASTS THAT HAVE YET TO BE DISCOVERED.
Pieter de Vries
Walt Lyons, FMA
University of Florida Lightning Research Group
University of Alaska Fairbanks
The London Gliding Club
The National Grid Transco High Voltage Research Centre, UMIST
The Historical Society of Cecil County
National Science Foundation
Penn State University
The Open University of Tel Aviv
Mike Taylor, University of Utah
Produced and Directed by
David Monaghan Productions/ITV West
With Top Notch/Off The Fence
For Five c 2004