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.
- 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!
Jean-Luc Dauvergne is a journalist for the French-language astronomy magazine Ciel et Espace (Sky and Space). In September he was in Iceland for a stunning display of aurorae, and the pictures he took of it were, well, stunning:
Ye. Gads. [Click to reykjavikenate.]
You can see the Big Dipper on the right, and Arcturus right near the horizon, if you can tear your eyes away from that unbelievable phenomenon. He was in Jökulsárlón when he took this – he tells me that’s Icelandic for "glacial river lagoon". I’d buy that.
He also took a cool shot of an airplane wreck from the 1970s with the Pleiades and Taurus hanging in the sky through the aurorae too. It’s part of a real-time and time lapse video he did showing off the natural wonders of Iceland:
It took me a second, but then I recognized the song: it’s by Björk! Well played, Jean-Luc.
I swear, I write so much about that island that the Iceland tourism board should pay for me to visit. Not that I’m suggesting that*.
* I am totally suggesting that.
Image credit: Jean-Luc Dauvergne
Via Jenny Winder on Google+ I saw this way cool video of an eruptive prominence on the Sun: a towering arc of plasma held aloft by the Sun’s magnetic fields. Sometimes these field lines are unstable, and the plasma can blast away from the Sun and out into space:
This video was taken by one of NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft; a pair of probes with one orbiting well ahead and the other behind the Earth. They stare at the Sun, literally giving us an angle on it we can’t get from our planet. Specifically this was from the STEREO Ahead spacecraft, and combines an ultraviolet view of the Sun itself together with a visible light portion that shows the Sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona.
You can see the prominence form, rise up, and then erupt away into space over the course of one day, on October 6-7, 2012. Sometimes this material rains back down to the surface, and sometimes it escapes entirely. When it does the latter, it can flow outward, impact the Earth, and cause a geomagnetic storm. Usually those do us no harm, though if they get big they can disrupt satellites and potentially cause power outages. More likely they just create gorgeous aurorae which can be photographed from the ground.
It’s actually rather amazing how many space-based eyes we have on the Sun and the amount of data they send back. The Sun is a feisty beast, and getting feistier as we approach the maximum part of its magnetic cycle. The more we observe it, the more we learn, and learning is always good.
Stéphane Guisard is a photographer who lives in Chile and takes phenomenal shots of the night sky – I’ve featured his work many times here on the BABlog (see Related Posts at the bottom of this article for much more).
He recently decided to take a long, long trek – he traveled from his home in Chile to the aurora haven of Yellowknife, Canada. Why? Did I mention that Yellowknife is a haven for aurorae?
And while there, on September 30, he saw this:
Wow! [Click to enemissionate.]
This shot has three things in it I just love. One is, duh, the aurora itself. Charged particles from the solar wind are caught by the Earth’s magnetic field, and are funneled down into the Earth’s atmosphere at high latitudes (that is, near the poles). They slam into the air, dumping energy into the atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, which respond by glowing with various colors. The green and red colors are due to oxygen and nitrogen.
I also love the reflection in the lake. It’s not something you think about much in pictures of aurorae, but to me it magnifies the beauty and reality of what I’m seeing.
The third thing is the shape of the aurora. The particles are shot mostly downward into the atmosphere, creating thin sheets and ribbons of light. At the bottom of the picture you’re looking more sideways at these sheets, but near the top you’re looking up, along the particle trajectories. The aurorae appear to radiate outward from a single spot, which is the direction from which the particles are zipping. It’s like looking at lights along a tunnel; they appear to converge at a single spot, the other end of the tunnel.
Stéphane’s pictures tend to focus (HAHAHAHA! Get it?) on big sky events – star trails, aurorae, and the like – though he does telescopic imagery as well. His work is wonderful and beautiful and well, well worth your time to take a look.
[Note: Universe Today has a few pictures up from recent aurorae due to a solar storm that nicked the Earth's magnetic field on October 8. They're among the most spectacular I've ever seen!]
- INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy
- Time lapse video: ISS cometrise
- Orion in the Mayan skies
- Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009 (see #3 for Stéphane’s picture)
- AMAZING wide-angle time lapse night sky video!
- Time lapse: old rocks and old skies
I’ve been featuring some of photographer Brad Goldpaint’s mesmerizing sky shots lately, and I’m very pleased that he’s taken some of his amazing recent pictures and used them to create a stunning time lapse video: presenting Within Two Worlds, a glorious display of the magnificent skies over America’s western regions:
You might recognize some of the scenery; the pink and purple aurorae we’ve been getting lately from solar storms, shots from Crater Lake, and more. I also like the effect of the star trails; at one point (around 1:55) you can see a meteor zipping across the sky, it’s train lingering due to the way Brad processed the video.
We’ve had time lapse photography for decades, but the advent of digital cameras with good lenses and sensitive, well-crafted detectors has made it possible for more people to create these videos more easily. It’s like another dimension has opened in the sky, one of beauty and awe. Using an old method we can see the sky in a new way and more easily share it with those around us. And I’m all for that.
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.
I get a lot of people sending me time lapse videos, and to be honest, I love it! They’re so much fun to watch, and so many of them actually show the sky above us in a new and interesting way.
At the very least, they’re lovely and invoke a sense of amazement. Even though this next one was made as essentially a travel advertisement for Sweden (it was filmed in Abisko National Park), I’ll allow it – after all, they’re hoping to get more people to see the aurorae! And the video is amazing: over 13 minutes of pretty cool footage of the northern lights.
My list of must-see places to visit on this planet is getting alarmingly long.
This is pretty neat: Project Aether is a program to inspire students about science and engineering by performing hands-on experiments with high-altitude balloons. A group of scientists, teachers, and students from the project traveled to Denali Park in Alaska to launch 30 balloons and get images of the aurorae from "eye-level", so to speak. The video they made has a good, short description of the phenomenon, and talks about how they set this up.
It’s an amazing time to be learning about science. I wish I had had access to something like this when I was a kid!
Tip o’ the parka hood to It’s OK to Be Smart.
Here’s a photo he took that is actually part of the time lapse:
[Click to embiggen.]
Aurorae are formed when subatomic particles from the Sun slam into our atmosphere. Note the streamers; those are caused by the varying strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field as it channels the particles down. As I describe in the earlier article, the colors are from different types of atoms and molecules in the air. Oxygen atoms glow red and green, sodium atoms yellow, and nitrogen molecules produce red and blue-violet. The nitrogen colors can blend and form pink or magenta, which is what we’re seeing here. Mark got more green in his aurora than Brad Goldpaint did in his, but Brad was in Oregon, thousands of kilometers west of Mark, and so he was seeing different effects from the solar storm.
I suspect things will quiet down a bit now; the sunspot that unleashed this storm is being carried around to the other side of the Sun as our star rotates, and it’ll soon disappear from view [UPDATE: SDO posted a video of the sunspot rotating out of view.] But as always, the Sun is feisty, and another may appear any day. SpaceWeather.com always has the latest info, so check there for updates and keep alert for more aurorae!
Image credit: Mark Ellis, used by permission
’tis the season for solar storms, and I’m hearing reports that Active Region 1504 (the same sunspot featured in a dramatic video I posted recently) has been getting feisty, blowing out some flares and causing auroral activity here on Earth.
Photographer Brad Goldpaint was in the right place at the right time Saturday night to see some of this: he went to Crater Lake, Oregon, and at 3:30 a.m. local time on June 17th he took this surpassingly beautiful picture of a somewhat rare event: pink aurorae!
[Click to recombinate.]
Gorgeous! And weird. The colors you see in aurorae depend mostly on what’s in the air. Literally! A solar storm is an eruption of subatomic particles launched from the Sun at high speed. These interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, which, through a complicated process, sends those little beasties down into our air. They slam into the molecules and atoms in the upper atmosphere, blasting off electrons like bullets hitting concrete and sending out shrapnel.
When electrons recombine with the atoms and molecules, a little bit of energy is released in the form of light, and the color of that light depends on what’s doing the emitting. Oxygen atoms, for example, tend to glow green and/or red. Oxygen molecules (two atoms combined, like the kind we breathe) glow blue. Nitrogen molecules can glow either red or blue. Here’s a diagram from the excellent Atmospheric Optics website: