The space shuttle Columbia broke up in a mysterious area of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere, which is filled with free electrons?or ions?that can reflect electromagnetic energy, producing strange electrical effects like “elves,” “sprites” and “blue jets.” Until recently, these were dismissed as illusions seen by tired airline pilots. An amateur astronomer took a photo showing purple light near the shuttle’s trail as it passed through this area. This middle atmosphere is too high for balloons and airplanes, but too low for satellites, so it’s been little studied. “We’re discovering the middle atmosphere has got a lot of electrical phenomena,” says Walt Lyons, of FMA Research. “The key message here is that there may be more things going on up there that we just don’t understand or have no inkling of yet.”

Physicist Umran Inan says, “You can’t make local measurements with any regularity. You can have a single rocket shot through the region, but the phenomena are dynamic and change from place to place and time to time.”

“The research we’ve been able to do has made us realize it’s even weirder than we thought,” Lyons says. “There may be other things that happen up there that we just don’t know about. Maybe we just encountered a new phenomenon the hard way.”

There?s a mysterious force in space uniting everything that scientists are working hard to understand.

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