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
If you need a pick-me-up to start your week (after a hurricane, a series of earthquakes, and just having to face another danged week at work) then may I suggest this amazing time-lapse video by Eric Hines, called "Wild Wyoming":
[Make sure it’s set to HD, and make it full screen. I personally think the music is very good, too (it’s from "The Fountain"), so you might want to crank up the speakers as well.]
Isn’t that breath-taking? At about a minute in I saw a couple of satellites heading across the Milky Way right-to-left, and of course the airplanes zipping through are pretty obvious (from the direction they’re moving, I’d guess most are coming from or heading to my home base of Denver airport). At 2:20 there is an eerie scene of what looks like light pillars to me; vertical glowing columns caused by flat, hexagonal ice crystals in the air
bending reflecting the light from sources beneath them. I’m a bit surprised they would appear in the summer, but some locations in eastern Wyoming/western Nebraska can get plenty cold at night. [UPDATE: I was wrong, those are simply lens flares, which makes a lot more sense to me. I asked Eric Hines about it and he replied on his Google+ post. Thanks to Neil Creek in the comments for pointing this out.]
Also, at 2:50, there’s a scene that better be familiar to anyone who reads this blog!
I’ve been to southern Wyoming (it’s not far from Boulder) and the geology there is very cool. Someday I’ll have to go fossil hunting up there. And maybe do a little star gazing too. Clearly, the skies there are magnificent.
Image credit: screen grab from Eric Hines’ video. Tip o’ the lens cap to Randy Halverson.