epic flash NASA
One of the large flashes captured by a NASA camera can be seen on Africa. NASA

The Earth is sending flashes of light out into space and a NASA camera is capturing them. The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera aboard NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) captured these photos.

The camera takes photos frequently from a position between the Earth and the sun. Alexander Marshak, a project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, noticed the flashes showing up over oceans in photos from the day. When he did some research, he found Carl Sagan had seen something similar in 1993. He hypothesized, as Sagan did, the flashes were mere reflections of sunlight directed back at the camera.

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But when NASA scientists took a closer look they realized the flashes also were happening over land, as well. Lakes and other landlocked bodies of water would be too small to make such large flashes. NASA fans looking through the images also noticed the flashes and got in touch with NASA inquiring about what they could be, NASA said.

Researchers then took a closer look and discovered the flashes are really reflections coming from ice crystals high in the atmosphere. “The source of the flashes is definitely not on the ground. It’s definitely ice, and most likely solar reflection off of horizontally oriented particles,” Marshak said in NASA release.

But this discovery took some calculations. First, researchers looked at where the flashes were happening on Earth. They were able to calculate that the flashes were occurring at the same angle between the Earth and sun as between the Earth and the craft’s camera.

A video from NASA shows the orientation of the DSCOVR craft in comparison with the moon, Earth and the sun.

This meant that the flashes couldn’t be lightning and had to do with nonfixed conditions on Earth. Other data allowed the researchers to discover that the sparks were coming off ice high in the atmosphere that had formed horizontally. This allowed them to eliminate groundwater as a possibility, NASA said. The data the craft collects includes height of clouds, which told researchers the glints were coming from clouds that were 3-5 miles above the Earth’s surface.

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These findings have led to more questions. Marshak is now looking into whether these measurements could be used to see how much sunlight passes through our atmosphere. It could end up being another factor to add into climate models that track the heating and cooling of the planet. And it’s being considered as a way to observe exoplanets from far away.

Sagan originally thought the flashes may be able to help researchers determine whether a planet held life, something NASA researchers now could further test because they fully understand the origins of the flashes.