No, this is not a scene from a sicfi movie, this is a real photo. And what an incredible shot it is!
The picture was taken by Martin Kornmesser, who I worked with at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), last month at the site of the Allgäu Public Observatory in the southwest of Bavaria in Germany. It captures a powerful man-made laser that appears to clash with an impressive lightning bolt.
Intense, yet beautiful, thunderstorms are very frequent during Bavarian summer nights. The sky gets covered with heavy purplish-grey clouds that light up as they throw down powerful lighting bolts. On the night Martin took this photo (one of the many he took for a timelapse), one of these Bavarian storms was approaching the Allgäu Public Observatory, where ESO is testing a new laser guide star unit.
As the name indicates, these units are used to create laser guide stars. The laser excites sodium atoms in a layer 90 kilometers up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This excitation causes the atoms to glow creating a very bright point of light in the sky — an artificial star. Advanced telescopes, like ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, use these laser guide stars to measure the distortions in the Earth’s atmosphere (what makes the stars twinkle) and cancel them (essentially making the stars “un-twinkle”). Because of this correction, the telescope’s images are very clear and sharp, as good as those taken by observatories in space. (This very cool ESOcast explains the process in more detail.)
The new laser guide star unit, being tested before being transported to Chile, has a power of some 20 watts. It is about 4 times more powerful than the ones currently at the VLT and about 100 times more powerful than standard green laser pointers. For testing the new prototype, ESO even had to obtain a no-fly zone above the Allgäu Public Observatory. The laser cannot damage planes but it can be dangerous for the eyes of passengers, and could blind the pilots.
Of course, the lightning is much more powerful than any man-made laser, peaking at a trillion watts — and this power is released in just a fraction of a second!
Nature wins. But Martin does too because this photo is AWESOME!