Flying through the aurora at 28,000 kph

By Phil Plait | April 5, 2010 12:27 pm

This may seriously be my favorite picture ever taken from space: the view from inside the International Space Station as it heads toward the aurora at 28,000 kilometers per hour:


This picture was taken by Soichi Noguchi looking out of the newly installed ISS cupola, which provides dramatic vistas of space from inside the station. You can see the Soyuz module that carried astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson on board– incidentally, with Discovery on its way to the ISS carrying three women, this will be the first time four women will have been in space simultaneously. [Update: According to commenter Ben Honey, that’s actually a Progress capsule, and not the Soyuz. The profile does match a Progress, so I assume he’s right. I stand corrected.]

This image is simply fantastic. The aurora, commonly called the northern lights, are caused by subatomic particles slamming into our atmosphere and ionizing the oxygen and nitrogen atoms there like shrapnel from bullets hitting a target. Guided by the Earth’s magnetic field, these particles tend to hit at high latitudes. The glow itself is similar to that of a neon sign: when the wayward electrons recombine with the atoms, they give off light. The colors are characteristic of the atom in question, and can be used to identify the atmospheric constituents.

The green glow is actually much lower than the ISS; that part of the aurora is usually at a height of 100 or so kilometers (60 miles), while ISS is at 400 km (240 miles). The red glow can reach higher, to more than 500 km (300 miles), so when Soichi says he is flying through the aurora he is literally correct. The fantastic speed of the ISS is apparent in the trailing of the stars in the image, and the streaking of the purple clouds below.

Astonishing, lovely, poetic, beautiful… and Holy Haleakala, real. When we humans want and choose to, we can fly through the northern lights. What else can we accomplish when we set our minds to it?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (42)

  1. There have been numerous aurora pictures from orbit over the past decades, esp. from the shuttle (and even on film) – I’d say it’s pretty hard to pick a winner.

  2. This is simply amazing, and a very poignant reminder of the potential of humanity – not to mention the beauty of our natural world.

    I still dream of making it off our pale blue dot one day, but only time will tell.

  3. Jessica

    I love photos like this, I can only imagine what this must have looked like in person! I’ve never seen an aurora with my own eyes; I hope to someday, and who knows maybe that first view will be from space instead on the ground!

  4. Andrew Frenette

    This is pretty sweet. Tends to let you think you’re right there in the driver’s seat, as it were. Thanks for sharing this with us, Phil.

  5. MoonShark

    Whoa. That really looks like a promo cover for a sci-fi novel or something. Crazy!
    Dan Fischer: Thanks for the link!

  6. Markle

    The photo scene is going to get more competitive. In the payload on board Discovery is the WORF (yes, WORF) Window Observational Research Facility that’s going to be parked at the old “Big Window” in the US Lab. It’s going to have actual engineered versions of the camera panning mount that Jeff Williams (?) jury-rigged together.

    Imagine all the things we missed out on when congress de-funded the lifeboat so that only 3 people could stay up at one time. The crews’ have had to spend most of their time performing housekeeping instead of science for the past decade. Penny-wise, pound-fools.

    Oh, Daniel Fischer, all your sub links are dead. The thumbnails go nowhere.

  7. OregonMJW

    Soicho Noguchi is, without question, a super talented photographer. Our brilliant good fortune to have given this artist such a magnificent platform. Absolutely fabulous!!

  8. Timmy

    I don’t want to get all melodramatic, but that picture makes spaceflight more real than any other image I have ever seen. Most pictures of spacewalks and shuttles docking have no perspective. They seem fake in some way… This reminds me of looking out of the window on a passenger jet. I can relate to this and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stick out…
    Absolutely awesome!

  9. This is spectacular! It’s so obvious how fast the ISS is going, when usually pictures give the impression that it’s not moving at all.

  10. Charles Boyer

    That’s an awesome photo.

    I do wish it had been made with a very low noise sensor in a digicam or even film so that the colors would be crisper and more lifelike. An Achilles Heel of most digital image sensors in cameras are noisy long exposures and this one is no exception.

  11. DaveS

    Of course, the image could have been taken much more cheaply and safely with an orbiting remote camera. Humans don’t belong is space.

    (For the sarcasm-impaired, I’m 100% for expansion of humans in space, specifically American humans in space, and I’m pissed as hell that it looks as though we’re giving up on that.)

  12. Markle

    @7. OregonMJW April 5th, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Soicho Noguchi is, without question, a super talented photographer. Our brilliant good fortune to have given this artist such a magnificent platform. Absolutely fabulous!!

    It’s funny, I remember an interview he had jointly on NASATV with Jeff Williams(CDR Expedition 22) right after he arrived on station. He was talking about learning all he could from the master so that he could take beautiful photographs of the Earth too.

  13. Phil,
    Thanks for posting this! Awesome picture! I need to follow Soichi more often!

    CORRECTION: This is a minor note, but I wanted to point out that the spacecraft pictured prominently here is not Tracy Caldwell’s Soyuz. Her Soyuz docked to the zenith port of the Russian side of the station, so it is out of frame. The vehicle shown is Progress 35P which has been docked to the Nadir port since last October.

    Keep looking up,
    Ben H.
    Space City, TX

  14. This is stupid cool!! I love Soichi’s photos… it’s a wonderful combination of science and pop culture to be able to have images from the space station instantly shared around the world via Twitter. It’s great to see all the hits he gets on his feed too…it’s awesome to see so much enthusiasm about these images!

  15. jcm

    Nice and Cool.

  16. nice stuff indeed real talent there guys.

    well it cold n windy in the uk

    haha seems brian cox like it too.

  17. Carl Maniscalco

    They’re not fooling anybody. We’ve never been to space and the photograph is just a Photoshop job.

    (For the humor-impaired, that’s a joke.)

  18. Douglas Troy

    Talk about great timing! I was just talking with one of my daughters about the Northern Lights last night, I can’t wait to show her this picture, it really is something.

    So now I can show her pictures of what the lights look like from the ground and from space.



  19. juiceandbenny

    Hi Phil,

    This may be a stupid question; did @Astro_Soichi say that the pic was the NORTHERN lights?
    From the viewpoint of this photo, is there any way of knowing that it’s not the Aurora Australis?

  20. alfaniner

    One guy – taking all these fantastic pictures. The human in space:personal camera ratio is almost even. Can you imagine the pics we’ll get when space is much more populated? It would appear that the reality surpasses the fiction!

  21. Cairnos

    OK, looking at this picture I can’t help but think “We all know what’s going to happen next. Due to a freak accident thier shielding will fail, they’ll all get dosed with red particles, and the next thing you know we’ll be up to our necks in superheroes and supervillains. This does not bode well for New York or Tokyo.

    Also agree with MoonShark, this so needs to become a book cover.

  22. This is my new iPhone wallpaper as soon as I get it synched.

  23. Mark Hansen

    I hope Harriman isn’t in the captain’s chair because it looks like it’s a doorway to another place that we call the Nexus.

  24. Monkey




  25. MadScientist

    High quality video of the lights (from the ground) would be awesome; I think far too many people have the impression that the lights just hang there like a curtain and don’t change. I loved Duke Ellington’s description of the lights as he drove through Canada.

    I was also staring at the picture wondering why I couldn’t see the Soyuz. :P~

    I wonder why you say that aurorae are more commonly called “Northern Lights” when only the Aurora Borealis is “northern”. I don’t recall the Aurora Australis ever being referred to as the “Northern Lights”.

    I also wonder how the astronauts are protected from the very high energy particles responsible for the aurora – and does the stream of charged particles interfere with electrical devices on the ISS (aside from the radios).

  26. JaninGA

    LOVE the photo, but what did I see this morning a 6am est – that looked like a moving star? Could it have been the shuttle or the space station?

  27. Andrew

    This is a truly extraordinary picture. I honestly thought it was a Painting at first. Phil, you are doing a lovely job with your fascinating blog.

  28. Neil Haggath

    #26 MadScientist:
    Of course only the Aurora Borealis is known as the Northern Lights, and Phil’s comment is technically in error – but that’s what most people probably think of when you mention “aurora”. The Aurora Australis is much less well known, due to the simple fact that many times more humans live in high northern latitudes than in high southern ones.

  29. Godswarriorofthemind

    This here picture ain’t real. It is faketed like the mooner landin. God will have great vengeoos agin you lyers and lyers makers.God is the only astronoot and the true creatoor of the univarse. Unless you is a true christain like me and my family then you will burn in eturnall hells fire for putting this on the enterwebs.Do you think this be funny to try to tricks peoples?the be prepeared to reep what you sew.I will fights you and yourn for God. Just come down heres to the south and try to put that lyes up round here in Mississippi and you all is in it for a whoopin.sciencetologists make me sick with your lyes and you falseyfyin. so stop it or face the wraith of God. You have been warmed.

  30. Neal Brown

    Did the ISS actually fly through an aurora? Max inclination of 51.59 degrees for ISS? Though you can see northern lights from the Shuttle, you can only fly through southern lights.

  31. eigenvector

    Is this possibly the first picture of star trails that are the result of the independent motion of the photographer and not the usual result (i.e circular trails) of the motion of the photographer due to the east-west motion of the earth?

  32. Neal Brown

    the POES Auroral oval plots ( for this date and time show the statistical auroral oval over Tasmania and Christchurch… their latitudes are actually closer to 45 degrees south. More reason to doubt that ISS flew through aurora. Had a great view of aurora, but I continue to doubt that it actually flew through it.

    I would love to be proven wrong.

    It is an incredibly beautiful picture, no doubt about that.

  33. Brian

    they needbetter cameras :/

  34. Alastair

    Question, does the ISS have a captain’s chair with an “eject ion pod” button? Its all I thought about when I saw the pictures and read about where they were taken.

  35. OJB

    Potentially a good photo but not great technically. You would think if they are going to all the trouble of going into space they would have cameras which produce better pictures (less noise)!


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