Shimmering purple aurora after a powerful solar storm

By Phil Plait | July 17, 2012 9:58 am

While I was at Comic Con – these things always seem to happen when I can’t get to the blog! – the huge sunspot cluster AR 1520 let loose with a powerful X1.4 class flare [Note: I originally had this as an X4 flare]. This magnetic blast released a huge wave of subatomic particles which screamed across space and slammed into the Earth’s magnetic field on Sunday night. These particles were then fed down into our atmosphere at high speed where they pinged at electrons in nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere. The molecules responded by glowing at very specific blue and red wavelengths, which to our eyes makes pink and purple. The result: gorgeous, gorgeous aurorae… like those seen by photographer Brad Goldpaint over Sparks Lake, Oregon:

Oh, my. That’s simply breathtaking. [Click to recombinate.]

X-class storms can damage satellites and cause some mischief on Earth like radio blackouts and power outages. Even if they were truly huge, though, they don’t do anything to us directly on the surface; our air protects us. And it does more than that: it puts on the greatest show on – and above – the Earth.

In the Related Posts links below I have thorough (and hopefully easy-to-understand) explanations of aurorae, and why they glow in these amazing and soul-stirring colors. I highly recommend you read them. Aurorae are a feast for the eyes and the brain as well; when you understand what makes them tick, your appreciation of them unfolds in an entirely new dimension.

Image credit: Brad Goldpaint, used with permission.


Related Posts:

The softly glowing night sky
Aurora, in the pink
Followup: More pink aurorae
JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (19)

Links to this Post

  1. Science Tidbits for July 17, 2012 « Teaching Sapiens | July 17, 2012
  1. Chris

    It was an X1.4 flare, not X4

  2. Mejilan

    Oh. My. Universe…

  3. Wish I’d see aurora even remotely like this; what I saw was largely greyish with just barely a hint of blue-green. This shot is stunning.

  4. I’ve seen a little pink in sunsets but I’ve never seen pink and purple like this before! This aurora is stunning! Thanks for the photo.

  5. roger
  6. roger

    People will think this just another “artists rendering”….it looks UNREAL!

  7. David Taylor

    The low altitude stars seem much clearer in reflection from the lake, due to dimmer aurora reflection. Is the aurora light polarized?

  8. Kyle

    EVERY fracking time there is an aurora display in the couple of years its cloudy where I’m at! Aurora in the deep south and clouds in Wyoming arrrggghhhhh.

    Someday I will see aurora I swears it on the FSM.

  9. F16 guy

    As a pilot for Delta, I’ve seen some amazing displays as far “south” as Anchorage and Fairbanks.

    Much easier to get to.

  10. MadScientist

    Since the particles are charged, the earth’s magnetic field protects us. Unless you live close enough to the magnetic poles you don’t have to worry about losing electricity during one of these events either.

    @David#7: Aurorae should not be polarized (after all it’s caused by a cascade of high energy particles producing X-rays, liberating electrons, and causing the glow). The aurora does seem to be more blue in the water, so perhaps the red isn’t being reflected as well.

  11. Brian

    We in New Zealand had a brilliant aurora on Sunday night especially. People as far north as 45^south had clear views of it. I am somewhat further north than this (40.5^south) and didn’t see it but I have seen aurora from here in the past. Hopefully, I will see another one soon.

  12. Greg

    The yellow light near the horizon, is that an effect from the atmosphere? Like when the sun appears red in the evening? Or is that yellow color also coming from the aurora?

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    Whoah! Yegods that’s one superluminous (beyond merely brilliant) image. Cheers! :-D

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Off topic, sorry, but figured many of the folks here might be interested in this :

    http://www.nature.com/news/nasa-set-to-choose-low-cost-solar-system-mission-1.10982

    Plans and a poll for future NASA missions – personally hoping they *all* go ahead and then many more too.

    My own suggestion to NASA would be to send an orbiter /lander combination to visit Pluto plus ones to Ouranos and Neptune too. Remember we’ve only mapped less than half of Triton for instance and there’s sure to be plenty new sights and discoveries to be made on the outer planets and their moons. :-)

  15. sam
  16. Matt B.

    “The aurora does seem to be more blue in the water, so perhaps the red isn’t being reflected as well.”

    And yet some of the stars are reflected better. Weird.

  17. Ian Dodd

    Crazy coincidence: I was just kayaking on Sparks Lake just last week (where this photo was taken) and hours later looking at that sunspot group through an H-alpha scope at the Oregon Observatory in Sunriver. Talk about spooky action at a distance!

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