Unfurled aurora

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2012 7:00 am

Every time I think I’ve posted just the most sensational aurora picture I’ve seen, another one comes along that has me scraping my jaw off the floor. Check out this shot by photographer David Cartier:

[Seriously, click to enbirkelandate.]

I know, right? That spiral shape is fascinating. Aurorae are formed when charged particles from the Sun slam into the Earth’s magnetic field and interact with it. They’re channeled down into our atmosphere, guided by the Earth’s field, and the shape of the aurora reflects the underlying magnetic field lines. They take on fantastic shapes, including spirals like this, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen curled in a way so well-defined and crisp.

If you look carefully at the bigger version, you’ll see some familiar stars like those forming the constellation Auriga in the center, while the Pleiades are visible nestled in the spot right where the aurora starts to wind up. The bright "star" which is also reflected in the water is actually Jupiter. I had a hard time distinguishing it from the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus, but I think that’s lost in the brightest part of the spiral (though you can see it better in the water to the right of the stretched-out Jupiter reflection).

David lives in the Yukon Territory, not far from the southeast corner of Alaska, and I imagine aurorae are a fact of life there. He has quite a few devastating shots of the northern lights in his Flickr stream. Treat yourself and take a look. His shots of atmospheric phenomena are also incredible.

Related Posts:

Aurora, in the pink (explaining aurora colors, and this followup)
The rocket, the laser, and the northern lights (still one of the best aurora pix ever)
Shimmering purple aurora after a powerful solar storm
Up, up, and aurora!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (19)

  1. theoncomingstorm

    Cool picture.

    I thought this blog was about gobal warming being right, talking about politics and making fun of antivaxxers. :-)

  2. F16 guy

    The lack of a global warming discussion this Monday morning, and pictures like this aurora, are just what I needed.

    Most of the time Phil gets it right ! LOL !

  3. Nigel Depledge
  4. Nigel Depledge

    @ F16 Guy (2) –

    Most of the time?

    AFAICT, whenever Phil gets something wrong, he ‘fesses up and sets it straight.

  5. Ted Hartley

    I was planning to buy a camera so I could start a new hobby. Now I have this to live up to. AND I live in Oklahoma. Some cool thunderstorm shots will not live up to the cool aurora pics but it will have to do.

    Thanks Phil for sharing.

  6. Rachel

    Stunning. Wish I could see it IRL. How about an aurora hunting trip for the next Science Getaway?

  7. clueless kid

    what does enbirkelandate mean?

  8. ow crap… that´s beautiful!

  9. James Evans

    @clueless kid:

    what does enbirkelandate mean?

    I believe Birkeland currents in the magnetosphere and ionosphere help determine the shape of aurorae. Someone here will certainly correct me if I’m wrong :).

    I wonder if there’s a Fibonacci sequence (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number) hidden in that spiral…hmmmmmm.

  10. CatMom

    Just when I think those aurora pics can’t get any more incredible, here comes another one. Whoa.

  11. John Doe

    Can anyone explain why the reflection of the stars in the bottom right corner have trails (i.e. are stretched out) while the direct images of the stars in the sky above have none?

  12. Mark Hansen

    @John Doe,
    I think the apparent star trails are due to ripples. If you check the reflections of the trees, especially those backlit by the aurora, they show the same blurring.

  13. Nigel Depledge

    James Evans (9) said:

    I wonder if there’s a Fibonacci sequence . . . hidden in that spiral…hmmmmmm.

    Maybe, but probably not. Apparently, most patterns that are claimed to be “golden ratio” spirals actually don’t fit that ratio. Interestingly, the article I read about this (I can’t recall where, dammit) linked to a site that claimed Fibonacci spirals were everywhere, and one of the illustrations in that linked site that claimed a Fibonacci spiral in a snail shell or something similar quite obviously had a snail shell that didn’t match the superimposed “golden ratio” spiral.

  14. Valdivia Vilela

    I’m fascinated with your blog. Congratulations! But, I haven’t enough English to talk about Astronomy. If you have an idea how could you help me, I would love. Regards. Val.

  15. Brian Too

    @14. Valdivia Vilela,

    Practice practice practice!

    Your posting here is a good start and you expressed yourself quite well. You may have more capability than you give yourself credit for.

  16. Steve Jones

    Just been doing magnetic fields in college. Would it be possible to use this picture to say that the charged particles are negatively charged.

    The picture was taken quite far North in the Northern Hemisphere where magnetic field lines are pointing almost vertically down from the sky into the earth.

    The charged particles are coming from behind us as they are losing energy and spiraling inwards.

    And the force they are experiencing is to the left of the motion. Using Flemmings left hand rule I say these particles are negatively charged.

    Please let me know if you think I’ve got this wrong.

    Thanks Steve


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