Astronauts' Storm of Excitement

From Associated Press

Israeli scientists in charge of space shuttle Columbia's desert dust-monitoring experiment said Monday they have yet to find any dust storms but are zooming in on thunderstorms with electrifying results.

A pair of cameras aboard Columbia have captured video images of an elf -- a luminous red, bagel-shaped, electrical phenomenon that occurs above a thunderstorm in less than a millisecond, said Yoav Yair, an atmospheric scientist at the Open University of Israel in Tel Aviv.

These are the first scientific images of an elf ever recorded from space, and they were captured by chance, Yair said.

Astronaut David Brown, who is working the graveyard shift on Columbia's round-the-clock science mission, aimed the Israeli cameras Sunday at an area right above a South Pacific thunderstorm -- without realizing he was photographing something special, Yair said.

Scientists realized what had been captured only after the images were transmitted to Yair and other scientists back on Earth.

"It's causing really great excitement," Yair said from NASA's payload control center in Greenbelt, Md.

"Bingo, we nailed one almost in the first data take. It was amazing."

Images of other electrical phenomena in the atmosphere were beamed down by the astronauts Monday. The shuttle crew includes Ilan Ramon, who, with Columbia's launch Thursday, became the first Israeli in space.

Now all the scientists need are some dust storms.

As it turns out, January is one of the worst times to study dust storms over the Mediterranean, the prime area of interest for the researchers.

Columbia's 16-day mission had a variety of launch dates over the last two years, but kept getting delayed, primarily because of shuttle problems.

Because of the lack of dust storms, Tel Aviv University scientists have focused on plumes of pollution coming out of Europe. Their goal is the same: to see how the particles affect cloud formation and, consequently, climate.

As for the elves, a phenomenon discovered in 1994, the scientists hope to learn more about the mechanics that connect thunderstorms to the ionosphere above. The ionosphere is the outer region of the Earth's atmosphere.

Such knowledge could have major applications for spacecraft, Yair said.

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