Gorgeous aurorae

By Phil Plait | October 25, 2011 2:52 pm

A few days ago, the Sun unleashed a blast of subatomic particles, a massive wave of plasma that swept out into space at speeds of millions of kilometers per hour. On Monday, October 24th, that coronal mass ejection slammed into the Earth’s magnetic field, compressing it, and causing a secondary wave of particles to cascade down into Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds. These particles struck molecules in the air, ionizing them, which then glowed fiercely as electrons recombined with their parent atoms exciting the electrons in atoms, and when the electrons give up that energy the atoms glow.

In English? Tremendously bright northern lights! Check this out:

That was taken by photographer Eric Hines on the shore of Lake Michigan last night. You can see the glow reflecting in the water! Another photographer, Randy Halverson, took an amazing shot as well and said the aurorae were "insanely" bright, and on his website commented they were so bright it was hard to get them exposed correctly. Universe Today has a lot more pictures as well.

Aurorae were reported as far south as North Carolina and Arkansas! This was a big magnetic event, larger than we’ve seen in some time. It’s already dying down, but you never know: there may be some activity tonight. It never hurts to go outside and look to the north. If you don’t look, then you’re guaranteed not to see anything.

Image credit: Eric Hines, used by permission


Related posts:

- The comet and the Coronal Mass Ejection
- Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse
- The Hunter, the station, and the southern lights
- NASA’s guide to solar flares

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: aurorae, Eric Hines

Comments (29)

  1. Mike Empyema

    The asstronaughts in ISS FUBAR are being roasted. “Man in Space” assumes a quiet sun. Sunspot 1330 – it’s a big one! – will be in direct line of Earth for the next week. One fat blast will be like living in a Homeland Severity airport radiation chamber. (Official dose is assumed whole-body volume, real dose 60 keV x-ray penetration is 2-3 cm. That is an order of magnitude whose narrow end you do not wish to stare down.)

  2. Jim Fisher

    I saw this in North Alabama! I didn’t know what I was seeing at the time. I thought there was perhaps a fire blazing somewhere. It was a beautiful, pretty bright hot pink. Weirdest thing ever. We just don’t EVAR see these here in Alabama! I’d love to see a full motion pic of the CME that caused this.

    There happened to be a bank robbery in our town earlier in the evening so helicopters and police sirens caused some people to jump to the perfectly logical conclusion that YouFoes had landed and were going to take our babies and eat our brains.

  3. Robin

    For me, the most extraordinary feature of last night’s aurora was the intensity of red glow. Large parts of the sky were blood-red, more so than I’ve ever seen (and I live in the arctic, mind you). I’ve posted a couple of my photos from the event on G+: https://plus.google.com/104776366457712375581/posts/NPcsD9fE9G6

  4. ozprof

    I observed it with a class of students here in central west Texas. The students really enjoyed it as none of them had ever seen one before.

  5. Joseph G

    WOW.
    I think I just had a prettyspacepicturegasm!

    Er. I should probably at least try to say something intelligent.
    Ooh, one thing I’ve been wondering for awhile – apparently the different colors are spectral emissions from various atmospheric gases being excited (or, to be pedantic, becoming de-excited). So why aren’t the colors mixed together? Why can we see individual colors at all? Are there huge areas in the upper atmosphere that are mostly devoid of nitrogen or oxygen?

  6. Sadly I’m where you are, Phil, (Denver metro area) so this evening is going to a bit rainy and snowy to see aurorae. Perhaps before the snow starts?

  7. Jenny

    We saw it here in Norman, Oklahoma! It was my first!!! Very red- nothing as spectacular as those of you up north saw, but I still felt privileged.

  8. Chris

    I saw last night the auroras were out. I put on my shoes and coat, went outside looked up and it was cloudy. Then I said a few “colorful metaphors” which would probably get this post flagged. Better luck next time.

  9. This was the first time we (unexpectedly) saw it at our new place just outside of Picton, ON, Canada. We saw a gorgeous, big, fat red glowy band from horizon to zenith surrounded by greyish streaks –for about half an hour around 10pm. A local photographer was up early this morning and captured some lovely greens: http://countylive.ca/blog/?p=18843

  10. I’m hopping to live a catastrophic solar storm capable of turning off all our computers and satellites, just to watch an Aurora here at Yucatán… Dreaming is free.

  11. Pete Jackson

    Red auroral light comes from oxygen at higher altitudes. It is a slow electron energy transition, and so can’t occur at lower altitudes where collisions between molecules occur before the transition can be made.

  12. vince charles

    5. Joseph G Said:
    October 25th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    “So why aren’t the colors mixed together? Why can we see individual colors at all? Are there huge areas in the upper atmosphere that are mostly devoid of nitrogen or oxygen?”

    Yes. The upper atmosphere doesn’t act like the lower atmosphere, and the middle is also different in some respects. The lower atmosphere deviates from ideal-gas laws far more strongly than, say, 70 miles up. Even ten miles up, there’s negligible water and poor mixing. By the altitudes that feel like space, the “air” has separated into a pretty-much-O2 layer, plus hydrogen and monatomic layers higher up. Aurora occur when outside energies are absorbed, so they’re absorbed by these upper layers first.

  13. PeterC

    On Monday night I watched the movie Thor, which features a somewhat dubious version of an Einstein-Rosen bridge/wormhole…. coincidence? I think not!

  14. Brian Too

    Crumbs. I’m in an area that gets aurora routinely and so far, it’s been a bust. There was a very weak display last night (I think, it could have been something else too).

  15. Judging from the orientation of the big dipper Randy’s picture looks like it was taken after 7:30am but the sun should have been up. Weird. I was out walking the dogs in a dark field about 4am in a dark field (’cause I’m that kinda dumb) in SW Missouri. I didn’t notice anything about the sky except the crispness and contrast. Maybe next CME.

  16. WJM

    Mike Empyema, IIRC Mir was inhabited at the time of the March 1989 solar storm.

  17. Jamie

    If I go outside and look tonight all I’ll get is wet…

  18. Neil NZ

    Do you have any pics of the Aurora Australis? I looked, but Auckland is too far North to get any show. Besides, looking south from here I get the glow of the Auckland City lights flooding everything.

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow! Superluminous photo. I love it. :-)

  20. RwFlynn

    If only these damned clouds didn’t keep rolling in for the past two nights, I’d have been able to see them here in VA. Sigh.

  21. Jenny @ 7 wrote:

    We saw it here in Norman, Oklahoma! It was my first!!! Very red…

    I too live in the South(oops; I guess, technically, u guize are north of 36°. Still though, I have seen the northern lights 4 times in my life(50 years), and always, they have been red. Why don’t we citizens of southern states see the green? Anyone know??? Or, is it just my luck to only see red?

  22. Chris Winter

    A spectacular auroral display — the more so because, judging by the picture, it took place just after sunset.

  23. Jeff

    boy, you will never see aurora reflecting off Lake Michigan again, at least not soon. This is an amazing event. I remember I saw a massive aurora all night in Orlando about 20 years ago.

  24. Joseph G

    Pete Jackson Says:
    Red auroral light comes from oxygen at higher altitudes. It is a slow electron energy transition, and so can’t occur at lower altitudes where collisions between molecules occur before the transition can be made.
    So a gas (like oxygen) can emit different colors depending on the electron energy level it’s excited to? Cool!

    and

    vince charles Says:
    Yes. The upper atmosphere doesn’t act like the lower atmosphere, and the middle is also different in some respects. The lower atmosphere deviates from ideal-gas laws far more strongly than, say, 70 miles up. Even ten miles up, there’s negligible water and poor mixing. By the altitudes that feel like space, the “air” has separated into a pretty-much-O2 layer, plus hydrogen and monatomic layers higher up. Aurora occur when outside energies are absorbed, so they’re absorbed by these upper layers first.

    Wow!! Thanks, I didn’t realize that. Ya learn something new every day.

  25. Infinite123Lifer

    Joseph G (5) said:

    “Er. I should probably at least try to say something intelligent.”

    I live by that motto
    But rarely live up to my motto :)

    I think your doing a great job Joseph G. . .minus intelligence points for the gasm quote though :)

    I have yet to witness colorful skies. . . still something to look forward to I suppose… hum ho. ho hum. If you step back turn your mind off and look at the pictures of aurora. . . it just does not look real! Nature is truly mind boggling!

  26. CR

    Sigh. Clouds & light rain prevented me from seeing this…

  27. Joseph G

    @Infinite123Lifer: Haha, er, thanks :)

    But yes, seeing the aurora is definitely near the top of my personal bucket list. And I mean pinning down a really good time and place to see it and going – none of this “faint glow on the horizon on a really good day seen from a hotel room in the city” stuff.

  28. Infinite123Lifer

    @27

    I have ventured outside probably close to or over 50 times in the past 15 years to catch a glimpse. . . to no avail :(

    Totally a bucket list item :)

  29. Anchor

    @27 Joseph – and Phil: That display was brief but astonishingly INTENSE, the most brilliant and SATURATED RED and GREEN-BLUE COLOR I’ve seen in a long time…all of it happeneed at 43 degrees North latitude (near enough within your scope Phil) and we saw it only because we here frequently check out the sky, even if it’s lousy, and this happened right at dusk. Joseph, the sky was so bright you could easily read by it – I estimate the total light at its peak roughly equivalent to ten full moons.

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