Shuttle Astronauts Catch An Elf

A dearth of dust storms had space shuttle Columbia's astronauts aiming their cameras instead at plumes of pollution and thunderstorms in an Israeli atmospheric study.

The thunderstorms already have produced 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 Monday.

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.

It was not until the images were transmitted to Yair and other scientists back on Earth that they realized what they had.

"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 became the first Israeli in space with Columbia's launch last Thursday.

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, who want to monitor desert dust migrating through the atmosphere. Columbia's 16-day mission had a variety of launch dates over the past 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. Such knowledge ultimately could have major applications for spacecraft, Yair said.

It got a little warm in Columbia's orbiting laboratory Monday night, after a breakdown of both of its cooling and dehumidifying systems. A leak of condensate water flooded and shut down the first system, then a current spike took out the second.

Mission Control came up with a plan to direct cool air from the shuttle crew cabin back into the lab that was anchored in the payload bay. A variety of repairs, meanwhile, are being considered by flight controllers.