My new favorite lunar eclipse image

By Phil Plait | December 22, 2010 11:59 am

Yesterday I posted a few pictures from Monday night’s lunar eclipse — including a really cool one of the Moon and the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery — but of the many hundreds I saw, I think I may have a new favorite:

Sigh. How lovely! Click to enaurorenate.

It was taken by Francis Anderson, who has posted quite a few others, too. The location was Tuktoyaktuk, in the Canadian Northwest Territories. This is a small town located at the bone-chilling latitude of 69° north, inside the Arctic Circle. That explains the visibility of the gorgeous aurora borealis, the glow from solar subatomic particles as they slam into our atmosphere. Guided by the Earth’s magnetic field to the geomagnetic poles near the north and south geographic poles, these particles shear electrons off the molecules and atoms of air, causing it to glow.

But what are those columns of light reaching up from the horizon? Those aren’t part of the aurorae; those are a variant of an atmospheric phenomenon called Sun pillars. Ice crystals in the air act like mirrors, reflecting light. The geometrical shape of the crystals determines how the light is bent; in this case the glow from lights in the town bounces off of the flat surfaces of tiny hexagonal plates of ice as they float in the air, creating these ghostly shafts of light. It’s usually seen when the Sun is setting or rising, but can also occur when any bright lights are near the ground. They add a Hollywood-style searchlight/red-carpet celebration to the scene, don’t you think?

And for an astronomical bonus, on the left of the image is the constellation Leo the Lion, his sickle-shaped (or backwards-question-mark) shaped head jammed into the auroral glow up to his shoulders. Normally, the light from the full Moon would totally overwhelm those stars, but in this case, of course, the Moon was eclipsed and much fainter. I saw Leo myself Monday night, rising in the east. It’s kind of neat to think that at almost the same time I stood on my driveway in Boulder, gaping at the sky, 3500 km to my northwest this very photo was being taken.

Tip o’ the parka hood to the phenomenal website The Big Picture.

Related posts:

A Sun pillar gooses the sky
Didja see the eclipse?
Discovery eclipse
Flying through the aurora at 28,000 kph

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. breadbox

    Wow. That is a pretty sweet coming-together of natural SPFX.

  2. 24601

    That’s Leo? Not the Big Dipper?

    edit: nevermind, I see the backwards question mark near the bottom of the image now.

  3. Jon Claerbout

    Your search – define enaurorenate – did not match any documents.

  4. How strange to think that some part of the beauty of this image comes from inadequately shielded lights beaming into the sky. Or are they properly-shielded lights being reflected off of snow or salt-covered pavement?

  5. BethK

    In atmospheric optics, those are called light pillars. Try

    On aurora-reporting sites, people sometimes report those as aurora because columns of aurora can look similar. I like Harold’s comment about inadequately shielded lights.

    Great photo.

  6. Douglas Troy

    Talk about jaw dropping.

  7. Chris A.

    @Jon Claerbout (#3):

    Enaurorenate is a perfectly cromulent word.

  8. David

    We couldn’t see the eclipse in southern California because it’s been raining for 6 days =(.

  9. T-storm

    I thought this was supposed to be a politics blog?

  10. Rob

    @T-storm: it is. This is just a response to the widespread claim that those columns of light were the heavenbound spirits of the polar bears who have died because anti-vaxxers have persuaded them to give up their herd immunity to global warming.

  11. Steve D

    There are many reports of auroras at ground level, which I have suspected for a long time are actually light pillars, and in some cases, if they’re reflecting an aurora from above, they’ll even appear to move like real auroras.

    Enaurorenate is not only cromulent, but sesquipedalian and floccinaucinihilipilificationistic, too.

  12. Cryogaijin

    Very nice photo. Almost makes me wish I still lived in fairbanks to do one similar. Sadly, Anchorage has FAR too much light pollution. Thank god for for the Dark Sky Society and their list of best viewing locations!

  13. Interesting discussion……but the above desciption ( below picture ) is quite accurate. The pillars of light are caused by ice crystals in the air coming from the hamlet’s street lights. I kept the tripod low to the ground ( using the snowbanks )to shield the pics from light pollution in order to get more detail into the shot. Aurora’s can also be quite low …as you can testify to some of my other photo’s taken last December 4th at this link
    The sky only cleared for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, right before the lunar eclipse began and the weather was great…a balmy -14C compared to the -44C a few weeks earlier when I took the aurora borealis shots lol

  14. Show off. The only thing not in this photo is Santa Claus.

    😉 j/k….this is fanTAStic. A really incredible sight, thanks for sharing!

  15. I’ll get that shot/ s ……..Friday night !! lol ( if Nikon can loan me a 600mm telephoto w/teleconverter lol )

    Merry Christmas ………….everyone !!

  16. Justin B

    Looks soooo photoshopped. But I trust the messenger.

    “Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?”

  17. Ah, Francis (15): Welcome, and congrats on such a beautiful photograph! And also thank you for licensing it for use on Flickr. Not everyone does that, which can be aggravating for a blogger. :)

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image. I’d call it an aurora shot or nightscape or something more than a lunar eclipse one personally*, but I like it! :-)

    Off topic, sorry but this is one of those niggling things that just keeps gnawing away at my mind from the old “Runners Up – BA’s Astronomical Images of 2010′ thread posted on the 20th Dec. 2010 :

    #2. Román : “… The only picture I’m missing from both lists is the one of the Earth and the Moon taken from Mercury orbit by… I can’t remember the spacecraft’s name.”

    I’ve done a lot of thinking and searching the memory banks both my own grey matter and the online ones & I just cannot seem to find one matching the description that is simultaneously :

    I) Taken this year
    II) By a spacecraft in Mercurian orbit – or near it anyhow &
    III) Showing our Earth and Moon from there

    Román -are youout there & can you let me know any further details that narrow it down some? Could anybody, please, help out here? The curiosity is killing me! 😉


    * It shows the eclipsed moon of course but also so much more than just that – the lunar eclipse seems incidental to the image.

  19. Oli

    @18. MTU: isn’t it just MESSENGER?

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 19 Oli :

    Well there was also Mariner 10 – but that flew past Mercury back in 1974-1975. 😉

    Bonus trivia fact for the night : Mariner’s 11 and 12 were redesignated Voyager 1 and Voyager 2

    Source : Wikipedia page for Mariner 10.

    Unfortunately, despite a search I haven’t found any MESSENGER* images of Earth & Moon seen from Mercury this year or last. There’s links to a couple of MESSENGER Earth shots on the other thread (#18) – but (& as ever I could be wrong) I don’t think they’re what Román was meaning. Nearest MESSENGER candidate image found so far was taken in April 2006 so I can’t see it being eligiable for this years list. In fact I can’t seem to find *any* MESSENGER images of Earth *and* Moon together but Román specified Mercury orbit so .. aaarrgh! 😮


    * The acronymn btw contrived out of MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging.

  21. Just check the Exif data on Flickr from my camera ??????…………the photo was taken at the exact ( MST ) time as the lunar eclipse…!

    no conspiracy here…………….although I have always been the biggest X-Files fan lol

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    While on on asking for help in answering questions anyone care to check on how this prediction cited here has worked out? :

    Dangerously off topic I know & apologies for that, but it is somewhat curious timing~wise. Please respond on there not here – we have a BA record of sorts to maintain there methinks! 😉

    PS. Does anyone have a record list somewhere of the longest running BA blog thread, the one with the most comments (surely one of those giveaway competition ones?), etc ..? Does the BA care about such stats? Could we maybe one day have a “ten best BA threads” thread – his most loved, most cited, longest running, most popular, etc ..?

  23. Buckley

    @ 20,
    MTU, a quick search found this photo which fits your requirements, I think. It’s hard to tell from the description exactly where the photo was taken, but it was 183 million Km from Earth.

  24. Learned some fascinating info today about that little village, also, like the proximity to over 1300 pingos (earth-covered ice mounds). In fact there is a national landmark there dedicated to the study and preservation of 8 pingos. And that picture is just freaking gorgeous!

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @24. Buckley : Thanks – that could well be it. It certainly ticks more of the boxes tahn anything I’ve seen yet. The only thing is it wasn’t posted on the Bad Astronomy blog by Phil but still easily the best answer found so far. Much appreciated. :-)


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