How to See Airglow, the Green Sheen of Night

Emerald green, fainter than the zodiacal light and visible on dark nights everywhere on Earth, airglow pervades the night sky from equator to pole. Airglow turns up in our time exposure photographs of the night sky as ghostly ripples of aurora-like light about 10-15 degrees above the horizon. Its similarity to the aurora is no coincidence. Both form at around the same altitude of  60-65 miles (100 km) and involve excitation of atoms and molecules, in particular oxygen. But different mechanisms tease them to glow.

Earth at night from the International Space Station showing bright splashes of city lights and the airglow layer created by light-emitting oxygen atoms some 60 miles high in the atmosphere.  This green cocoon of light is familiar to anyone who’s looked at photos of Earth’s night-side from orbit. Credit: NASA

Auroras get their spark from high-speed electrons and protons in the solar wind that bombard oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules. As excited electrons within those atoms return to their rest states, they emit photons of green and red light that create shimmering, colorful curtains of northern lights.

Green light from excited oxygen atoms dominates the light of airglow. The atoms are 56-62 miles high in the thermosphere. The weaker red light is from oxygen atoms further up. Sodium atoms, hydroxyl radicals (OH) and molecular oxygen add their own complement to the light. Credit: Les Cowley

Airglow’s subtle radiance arises from excitation of a different kind. Ultraviolet light from the daytime sun ionizes or knocks electrons off of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules;  at night the electrons recombine with their host atoms, releasing energy as light of different colors including green, red, yellow and blue.  The brightest emission, the one responsible for creating the green streaks and bands visible from the ground and orbit, stems from excited oxygen atoms beaming light at 557.7 nanometers, smack in the middle of  the yellow-green parcel of spectrum where our eyes are most sensitive.

Airglow across the eastern sky below the summertime Milky Way. Notice that unlike the vertical rays and gently curving arcs of the aurora, airglow is banded, streaky and in places almost fibrous. It’s brightest and best visible 10-15 degrees high along a line of sight through the thicker atmosphere. If you look lower, its feeble light is absorbed by denser air and dust. Looking higher, the light spreads out over a greater area and appears dimmer. Credit: Bob King
A large, faint patch of airglow below the Dippers photographed May 24. To the eye, airglow appears as colorless streaks and patches. Unlike the aurora, it’s typically too faint to excite our color vision. Time exposures show its colors well. This swatch is especially faint because it’s much higher above the horizon. Credit: Bob King

That’s not saying airglow is easy to see! For years I suspected streaks of what I thought were high clouds from my dark sky observing site even when maps and forecasts indicated pristine skies. Photography finally taught me to trust my eyes. I started noticing green streaks near the horizon in long-exposure astrophotos. At first I brushed it off as camera noise. Then I noticed how the ghostly stuff would slowly shape-shift over minutes and hours and from night to night. Gravity waves created by jet stream shear, wind flowing over mountain ranges and even thunderstorms in the lower atmosphere propagate up to the thermosphere to fashion airglow’s ever-changing contours.

An obvious airglow smear across Virgo last month. Mars is the bright object below and right of center. Light pollution from Duluth, Minn. creeps in at lower left. Credit: Bob King

Last month, on a particularly dark night, I made a dedicated sweep of the sky after my eyes had fully adapted to the darkness. A large swath of airglow spread south of the Big and Little Dipper. To the east, Pegasus and Andromeda harbored hazy spots of  varying intensity, while brilliant Mars beamed through a long smear in Virgo.

To prove what I saw was real, I made the photos you see in this article and found they exactly matched my visual sightings. Except for color. Airglow is typically too faint to fire up the cone cells in our retinas responsible for color vision. The vague streaks and patches were best seen by moving your head around to pick out the contrast between them and the darker, airglow-free sky. No matter what part of the sky I looked, airglow poked its tenuous head. Indeed, if you were to travel anywhere on Earth, airglow would be your constant companion on dark nights, unlike the aurora which keeps to the polar regions. Warning – once you start seeing it, you

Excited oxygen at higher altitude creates a layer of faint red airglow. Sodium excitation forms the yellow layer at 57 miles up. Airglow is brightest during daylight hours but invisible against the sunlight sky. Credit: NASA with annotations by Alex Rivest

Airglow comes in different colors – let’s take a closer look at what causes them:

* Red – I’ve never seen it, but long-exposure photos often reveal red/pink mingled with the more common green. Excited oxygen atoms much higher up at 90-185 miles (150-300 km) radiating light at a different energy state are responsible. Excited -OH (hydroxyl) radicals give off deep red light in a process called chemoluminescence when they react with oxygen and nitrogen. Another chemoluminescent reaction takes place when oxygen and nitrogen molecules are busted apart by ultraviolet light high in the atmosphere and recombine to form nitric oxide  (NO).

* Yellow – From sodium atoms around 57 miles (92 km) high. Sodium arrives from the breakup and vaporization of minerals in meteoroids as they burn up in the atmosphere as meteors.

* Blue – Weak emission from excited oxygen molecules approximately 59 miles (95 km) high.

Comet Lovejoy passing behind green oxygen and sodium airglow layers on December 22, 2011 seen from the space station. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank

Airglow varies time of day and night and season, reaching peak brightness about 10 degrees, where our line of sight passes through more air compared to the zenith where the light reaches minimum brightness. Since airglow is brightest around the time of solar maximum (about now), now is an ideal time to watch for it. Even cosmic rays striking molecules in the upper atmosphere make a contribution.

See lots of airglow and aurora from orbit in this video made using images taken from the space station.

If you removed the stars, the band of the Milky Way and the zodiacal light, airglow would still provide enough illumination to see your hand in front of your face at night. Through recombination and chemoluminescence, atoms and molecules creates an astounding array of colored light phenomena. We can’t escape the sun even on the darkest of nights.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

View Comments

  • Awesome new information for me! I love atmospheric phenom and have not heard this as well explained before. Makes more sense to me now. Thanks!

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