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Watch: Hawaiian thunderstorms spawn rarely-observed 'Space Lightning'

"Gigantic Jet Lightning" spotted from thunderstorms in Hawaii via the Gemini camera atop Mauna Kea. (Original video courtesy: Gemini Observatory / AURA)

The incredible sights of watching towering thunderstorms electrify the night from atop Hawaii's tallest volcano is one thing, but the storms outdid themselves Monday by giving off rarely-seen spaceward-bound bolts called "Gigantic Jets" -- also informally known as "Space Lightning."

Steve Cullen was watching the storms from the Gemini Observatory web camera stationed atop Manua Kea when he saw a few lightning bolts light up the sky -- only these were going the wrong way!

"Being a professional photographer (focusing on astro photography) and dedicated citizen scientist, I frequently check the Gemini Observatory, W. M. Keck Observatory, and Canada France Hawaii Telescope Corporation CloudCams on the Maunakea summit for interesting things happening in the sky," Cullen said. "When I heard from my photography friends on the Big Island that the remnants of (Hurricane) Fernanda were firing up thunderstorms I immediately went online and poured through the CloudCam archives for that evening. When I first saw the Gigantic Jets on the Gemini CloudCam in realtime, I thought they were lens flares from bright lightning flashes. It wasn't until I went through the video frame-by-frame that my jaw dropped to the floor as I could clearly tell that they were these spectacular Gigantic Jets."

The video from Monday night caught three such jets, and according to SpaceWeather.com, one of the bolts reached as highs as about 50 miles high into the ionosphere.

Frankie Lucena of Puerto Rico noted Cullen's discovery and went back to the video to edit and show where the jets hit:

(Video via Gemini Observatory/AURA)

"Gigantic Jets are much more rare than sprites," Oscar van der Velde, a member of the Lightning Research Group at the Universitat Polit├Ęcnica de Catalunya, told SpaceWeather.com. "While sprites were discovered in 1989 and have since been photographed by the thousands, it was not until 2001-2002 that Gigantic Jets were first recorded from Puerto Rico and Taiwan."

MORE | Watch the full, unedited video from Monday night (Courtesy Gemini Observatory/AURA)

Dr. Tony Phillips with SpaceWeather.com says the jets, along with similar spikes called "sprites", inhabit the upper atmosphere.

"Some researchers believe they are linked to cosmic rays: subatomic particles from deep space striking the top of Earth's atmosphere produce secondary electrons that could, in turn, provide the spark for these upward bolts," Phillips wrote.

The site says only a few dozen of the Gigantic Jets have ever been spotted before -- and mostly over ocean. Although Cullen says he's seen about 24 of these jets over the years.

Phillips has been conducting years-long research on cosmic rays and thinks these Gigantic Jets may become more common in the future! Check out his Spaceweather.com site for more information.

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