Northern Lights by Drone? You Won’t Believe Your Eyes


Northern lights over Iceland filmed by Icelandic photographer Oli Haukur using a drone. Don’t forget to expand the screen.

I knew the era of real-time northern lights video was upon us. I just didn’t think drones would get into the act this soon. What was I thinking? They’re perfect for the job! If watching the aurora ever made you feel like you could fly, well now you can in Oli Haukur’s moving, real-time footage of an amazing aurora display filmed by drone.

Oli Haukur operates the drone and camera during a test run. Credit: Oli Hauku / OZZO Photography
Oli Haukur operates the drone and camera during a test run. Credit: Oli Hauku / OZZO Photography

Haukur hooked up a Sony a7S II digital camera and ultra-wide Sigma 20mm f/1.4 lens onto his DJI Matrice 600 hexacopter. The light from the gibbous moon illuminates the rugged shoreline and crashing waves of the Reykjanes Peninsula (The Steamy Peninsula) as while green curtains of aurora flicker above.

The Sony camera is shown attached to the drone. To capture the aurora, Haukur used a fast lens, high ISO and set the frame rate to 25 frames per second (fps) or 1/25th of a second per frame. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography
The Sony camera is shown attached to the drone. To capture the aurora, Haukur used a fast lens, high ISO and set the frame rate to 25 frames per second (fps) or 1/25th of a second per frame. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography

When the camera ascends over a sea stack, you can see gulls take off below, surprised by the mechanical bird buzzing just above their heads. Breathtaking. You might notice at the same time a flash of light — this is from the lighthouse beacon seen earlier in the video.

To capture his the footage, Haukur used a “fast” lens (one that needs only a small amount of light to make a picture) and an ISO of 25,600. The camera is capable of ISO 400,000, but the lower ISO provided greater resolution and color quality.

Moonlight provided all the light needed to bring out the landscape.

The drone used to make the night flight. Credit: Oli Haukur
The drone used to make the night flight and aurora recording is seen up close on takeoff. Haukur, of Rejkyavik, Iceland, works as a freelance photographer and filmmaker as well as providing professional drone services in that country. Credit: Oli Haukur / OZZO Photography

Remember when ISO 1600 or 3200 was as far you dared to go before the image turned to a grainy mush? Last year Canon released a camera that can literally see in the dark with a top ISO over 4,000,000! There’s no question we’ll be seeing more live aurora and drone aurora video in the coming months. Haukur plans additional shoots this winter and early next spring. Living in Iceland, which lies almost directly beneath the permanent auroral oval, you can schedule these sort of things!

Am I allowed one tiny criticism? I want more — a minute and a half is barely enough! Haukur shot plenty but released only a taste to social media to prove it could be done and share the joy. Let’s hope he compiles the rest and makes it available for us to lose our selves in soon.

Space Weather Causing Martian Atmospherics

A curious plume-like feature was observed on Mars on 17 May 1997 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is similar to the features detected by amateur astronomers in 2012, although appeared in a different location. Credit: JPL/NASA/STScI
A curious plume-like feature was observed on Mars on May 17, 1997 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is similar to the features detected by amateur astronomers in 2012, although appeared in a different location. Credit: JPL/NASA/STScI

Strange plumes in Mars’ atmosphere first recorded by amateur astronomers four year ago have planetary scientists still scratching their heads. But new data from European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express points to coronal mass ejections from the Sun as the culprit.

Mystery plume in Mars’ southern hemisphere photographed by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012. The feature extended between 310-620 miles and lasted for about 10 days.
Mystery plume in Mars’ southern hemisphere photographed and animated by amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012. The feature lasted for about 10 days. Credit: Wayne Jaeschke

On two occasions in 2012 amateurs photographed cloud-like features rising to altitudes of over 155 miles (250 km) above the same region of Mars. By comparison, similar features seen in the past haven’t exceeded 62 miles (100 km). On March 20th of that year, the cloud developed in less than 10 hours, covered an area of up to 620 x 310 miles (1000 x 500 kilometers), and remained visible for around 10 days.

Back then astronomers hypothesized that ice crystals or even dust whirled high into the Martian atmosphere by seasonal winds might be the cause. However, the extreme altitude is far higher than where typical clouds of frozen carbon dioxide and water are thought to be able to form.

Indeed at those altitudes, we’ve entered Mars’ ionosphere, a rarified region where what air there is has been ionized by solar radiation. At Earth, charged particles from the Sun follow the planet’s global magnetic lines of force into the upper atmosphere to spark the aurora borealis. Might the strange features observed be Martian auroras linked to regions on the surface with stronger-than-usual magnetic fields?

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA
Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

Once upon a very long time ago, Mars may have had a global magnetic field generated by electrical currents in a liquid iron-nickel core much like the Earth’s does today. In the current era, the Red Planet has only residual fields centered over regions of magnetic rocks in its crust.

Copyright: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker The top image shows the location of the mysterious plume on Mars, identified within the yellow circle (top image, south is up), along with different views of the changing plume morphology taken by W. Jaeschke and D. Parker on 21 March 21 2012.
The top image shows the location of the mysterious plume on Mars, identified within the yellow circle (top image, south is up), along with different views of the changing plume morphology on March 21, 2012. Copyright: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker

Instead of a single, planet-wide field that funnels particles from the Sun into the atmosphere to generate auroras, Mars is peppered with pockets of magnetism, each potentially capable of connecting with the wind of particles from the Sun to spark a modest display of the “northern lights.” Auroras were first discovered on Mars in 2004 by the Mars Express orbiter, but they’re faint compared to the plumes, which were too bright to be considered auroras.

Still, this was a step in the right direction. What was needed was some hard data of a possible Sun-Earth interaction which scientists ultimately found when they looked into plasma and solar wind measurements collected by Mars Express at the time. David Andrews of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, lead author of a recent paper reporting the Mars Express results, found evidence for a large coronal mass ejection or CME from the Sun striking the martian atmosphere in the right place and at around the right time.

Examples of Earth-based observations of the mysterious plume seen on 21 March 2012 (top right) and of Mars Express solar wind observations during March and April 2012 (bottom right).
Earth-based observations of the plume on March 21, 2012 (top right) and of Mars Express solar wind observations during March and April 2012 (bottom right). The left-hand graphics show Mars as seen by Mars Express. Green represents the planet’s dayside and gray, the nightside. Magnetic areas of the crust are shown in blue and red. The white box indicates the area in which the plume observations were made. Together, these graphics show that the amateur observations were made during the martian daytime, along the dawn terminator, while the spacecraft observations were made along the dusk terminator, approximately half a martian ‘day’ later.The black line on Mars is the ground track of the Mars Express orbiter. The plot on the lower right shows Mars Express’s solar wind measurements. The peaks marked by the horizontal blue line indicate the increase in the solar wind properties as a result of the impact of the coronal mass ejection. Credit: Copyright: visual images: D. Parker (large Mars image and bottom inset) & W. Jaeschke (top inset). All other graphics courtesy D. Andrews

CMEs are enormous explosions of hot solar plasma — a soup of electrons and protons — entwined with magnetic fields that blast off the Sun and can touch off geomagnetic storms and auroras when they encounter the Earth and other planets.

“Our plasma observations tell us that there was a space weather event large enough to impact Mars and increase the escape of plasma from the planet’s atmosphere,” said Andrews. Indeed, the plume was seen along the day–night boundary, over a region of known strong crustal magnetic fields.

Locations of 19 auroral detections (white circles) made by the SPICAM instrument on Mars Express during 113 nightside orbits between 2004 and 2014, over locations already known to be associated with residual crustal magnetism. The data is superimposed on the magnetic field line structure (from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor) where red indicates closed magnetic field lines, grading through yellow, green and blue to open field lines in purple. The auroral emissions are very short-lived, they are not seen to repeat in the same locations, and only occur near the boundary between open and closed magnetic field lines. Credit: ESA / Copyright Based on data from J-C. Gérard et al (2015)
Locations of 19 auroral detections (white circles) made by Mars Express during 113 nightside orbits between 2004 and 2014, over locations already known to be associated with residual crustal magnetism. The data is superimposed on the magnetic field line structure (from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor) where red indicates closed magnetic field lines, grading through yellow, green and blue to open field lines in purple. The auroral emissions are very short-lived, they are not seen to repeat in the same locations. Credit: ESA / Copyright Based on data from J-C. Gérard et al (2015)

But again, a Mars aurora wouldn’t be expected to shine so brightly. That’s why Andrews thinks that the CME prompted a disturbance in the ionosphere large enough to affect dust and ice grains below:

“One idea is that a fast-traveling CME causes a significant perturbation in the ionosphere resulting in dust and ice grains residing at high altitudes in the upper atmosphere being pushed around by the ionospheric plasma and magnetic fields, and then lofted to even higher altitudes by electrical charging,” according to Andrews.

A colossal CME departs the Sun in February 2000. erupting filament lifted off the active solar surface and blasted this enormous bubble of magnetic plasma into space. Credit NASA/ESA/SOHO
A colossal CME, composed of a magnetized cloud of subatomic particles, departs the Sun in February 2000. Credit NASA/ESA/SOHO

With enough dust and ice twinkling high above the planet’s surface, it might be possible for observers on Earth to see the result as a wispy plume of light. Plumes appear to be rare on Mars as a search through the archives has revealed. The only other, seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in May 1997, occurred when a CME was hitting the Earth at the same time. Unfortunately, there’s no information from Mars orbiters at the time about its effect on that planet.

Observers on Earth and orbiters zipping around the Red Planet continue to monitor Mars for recurrences. Scientists also plan to use the webcam on Mars Express for more frequent coverage. Like a dog with a bone, once scientists get a bite on a tasty mystery, they won’t be letting go anytime soon.

Give Mom the Aurora Tonight / Mercury Transit Update

Skywatchers across the northern tier of states, the Midwest and southern Canada were treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis last night. More may be on tap for tonight. Credit: Bob King
Skywatchers across the northern tier of states, the Midwest and southern Canada were treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis last night. More may be on tap for tonight — in honor of Mother’s Day of course! Credit: Bob King

Simple choices can sometimes lead to dramatic turns of events in our lives. Before turning in for the night last night, I opened the front door for one last look at the night sky. A brighter-than-normal auroral arc arched over the northern horizon. Although no geomagnetic activity had been forecast, there was something about that arc that hinted of possibility.

It was 11:30 at the time, and it would have been easy to go to bed, but I figured one quick drive north for a better look couldn’t hurt. Ten minutes later the sky exploded. The arc subdivided into individual pillars of light that stretched by degrees until they reached the zenith and beyond. Rhythmic ripples of light – much like the regular beat of waves on a beach — pulsed upward through the display. You can’t see a chill going up your spine, but if you could, this is what it would look like.

A coronal aurora twists overhead in this photo taken early on May 8 from near Duluth, Minn. Credit: Bob King
A coronal aurora twists overhead in this photo taken around 12:15 a.m. on May 8 from near Duluth, Minn. What this photo and the others don’t show is how fast parts of the display flashed and flickered. Shapes would form, disappear and reform in seconds. Credit: Bob King

Auroras can be caused by huge eruptions of subatomic particles from the Sun’s corona called CMEs or coronal mass ejections, but they can also be sparked by holes in the solar magnetic canopy. Coronal holes show up as blank regions in photos of the Sun taken in far ultraviolet and X-ray light. Bright magnetic loops restrain the constant leakage of electrons and protons from the Sun called the solar wind. But holes allow these particles to fly away into space at high speed. Last night’s aurora traces its origin back to one of these holes.

Visualization of the solar wind encountering Earth's magnetic "defenses" known as the magnetosphere. Clouds of southward-pointing plasma are able to peel back layers of the Sun-facing bubble and stack them into layers on the planet's nightside (center, right). The layers can be squeezed tightly enough to reconnect and deliver solar electrons (yellow sparkles) directly into the upper atmosphere to create the aurora. Credit: JPL
Both a bar magnet (left) and Earth are surrounded by magnetic fields with north and south poles. Earth’s field is shaped by charged particles – electrons and protons – flowing from the sun called the solar wind. Credit: Andy Washnik (left) and NASA

The subatomic particles in the gusty wind come bundled with their own magnetic field with a plus or positive pole and a minus or negative pole. Recall that an ordinary bar magnet also  has a “+” and “-” pole, and that like poles repel and opposite poles attract. Earth likewise has magnetic poles which anchor a large bubble of magnetism around the planet called the magnetosphere.

Visualization of the solar wind encountering Earth's magnetic "defenses" known as the magnetosphere. Clouds of southward-pointing plasma are able to peel back layers of the Sun-facing bubble and stack them into layers on the planet's nightside (center, right). The layers can be squeezed tightly enough to reconnect and deliver solar electrons (yellow sparkles) directly into the upper atmosphere to create the aurora. Credit: JPL
Visualization of the solar wind encountering Earth’s magnetic “defenses” known as the magnetosphere. Clouds of southward-pointing plasma are able to peel back layers of the Sun-facing bubble and stack them into layers on the planet’s nightside (center, right). The layers can be squeezed tightly enough to reconnect and deliver solar electrons (yellow sparkles) directly into the upper atmosphere to create the aurora. Credit: JPL

Field lines in the magnetosphere — those invisible lines of magnetic force around every magnet — point toward the north pole. When the field lines in the solar wind also point north, there’s little interaction between the two, almost like two magnets repelling one another. But if the cloud’s lines of magnetic force point south, they can link directly into Earth’s magnetic field like two magnets snapping together. Particles, primarily electrons, stream willy-nilly at high speed down Earth’s magnetic field lines like a zillion firefighters zipping down fire poles.  They crash directly into molecules and atoms of oxygen and nitrogen around 60-100 miles overhead, which absorb the energy and then release it moments later in bursts of green and red light.

View of the eastern sky during the peak of this morning's aurora. Credit: Bob King
View of the eastern sky during the peak of this morning’s aurora. Credit: Bob King

So do great forces act on the tiniest of things to produce a vibrant display of northern lights. Last night’s show began at nightfall and lasted into dawn. Good news! The latest forecast calls for another round of aurora tonight from about 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. CDT (0-6 hours UT). Only minor G1 storming (K index =5) is expected, but that was last night’s expectation, too. Like the weather, the aurora can be tricky to pin down. Instead of a G1, we got a G3 or strong storm. No one’s complaining.

So if you’re looking for that perfect last minute Mother’s Day gift, take your mom to a place with a good view of the northern sky and start looking at the end of dusk for activity. Displays often begin with a low, “quiet” arc and amp up from there.

The camera recorded pale purple and red but the primary color visible to the eye was green. Credit: Bob Kin
The camera recorded pale purple, red and green, but the primary color visible to the eye was green. Cameras capture far more color than what the naked eye sees because even faint colors increase in intensity during a time exposure. Details: ISO 800, f/2.8, 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King

Aurora or not, tomorrow features a big event many of us have anticipated for years — the transit of Mercury. You’ll find everything you’ll need to know in this earlier story, but to recap, Mercury will cross directly in front of the Sun during the late morning-early evening for European observers and from around sunrise (or before) through late morning-early afternoon for skywatchers in the Americas. Because the planet is tiny and the Sun deadly bright, you’ll need a small telescope capped with a safe solar filter to watch the event. Remember, never look directly at the Sun at any time.

Nov. 15, 1999 transit of Mercury photographed in UV light by the TRACE satellite. Credit: NASA
Nov. 15, 1999 transit of Mercury photographed in UV light by the TRACE satellite. Credit: NASA

If you’re greeted with cloudy skies or live where the transit can’t be seen, be sure to check out astronomer Gianluca Masi’s live stream of the event. He’ll hook you up starting at 11:00 UT (6 a.m. CDT) tomorrow.

The table below includes the times across the major time zones in the continental U.S. for Monday May 9:

Time Zone Eastern (EDT) Central (CDT) Mountain (MDT) Pacific (PDT)
Transit start 7:12 a.m. 6:12 a.m. 5:12 a.m. Not visible
Mid-transit 10:57 a.m. 9:57 a.m. 8:57 a.m. 7:57 a.m.
Transit end 2:42 p.m. 1:42 p.m. 12:42 p.m. 11:42 a.m.

Stunning Auroras From the Space Station in Ultra HD – Videos

Still image shows a stunning aurora captured from the International Space Station. This frame is from a compilation of ultra-high definition time-lapses of the aurora shot from the space station.  Credit: NASA
Still image shows a stunning aurora captured from the International Space Station. This frame is from a compilation of ultra-high definition time-lapses of the aurora shot from the space station. Credit: NASA

Stunning high definition views of Earth’s auroras and dancing lights as seen from space like never before have just been released by NASA in the form of ultra-high definition videos (4K) captured from the International Space Station (ISS).

Whether seen from the Earth or space, auroras are endlessly fascinating and appreciated by everyone young and old and from all walks of life.

The spectacular video compilation, shown below, was created from time-lapses shot from ultra-high definition cameras mounted at several locations on the ISS.

It includes HD view of both the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis phenomena seen over the northern and southern hemispheres.

The video begins with an incredible time lapse sequence of an astronaut cranking open the covers off the domed cupola – everyone’s favorite locale. Along the way it also shows views taken from inside the cupola.

The cupola also houses the robotics works station for capturing visiting vehicles like the recently arrived unmanned SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighters carrying science experiments and crew supplies.

The video was produced by Harmonic exclusively for NASA TV UHD;

Video caption: Ultra-high definition (4K) time-lapses of both the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis phenomena shot from the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: NASA

The video segue ways into multi hued auroral views including Russian Soyuz and Progress capsules, the stations spinning solar panels, truss and robotic arm, flying over Europe, North America, Africa, the Middle East, star fields, the setting sun and moon, and much more.

Auroral phenomena occur when electrically charged electrons and protons in the Earth’s magnetic field collide with neutral atoms in the upper atmosphere.

“The dancing lights of the aurora provide a spectacular show for those on the ground, but also capture the imaginations of scientists who study the aurora and the complex processes that create them,” as described by NASA.

Here’s another musical version to enjoy:

The ISS orbits some 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead with a multinational crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts living and working aboard.

The current Expedition 47 crew is comprised of Jeff Williams and Tim Kopra of NASA, Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) and cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos.

Some of the imagery was shot by recent prior space station crew members.

Here is a recent aurora image taken by flight engineer Tim Peake of ESA as the ISS passed through on Feb. 23, 2016.

“The @Space_Station just passed straight through a thick green fog of #aurora…eerie but very beautiful,” Peake wrote on social media.

The @Space_Station just passed straight through a thick green fog of #aurora…eerie but very beautiful.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake
The @Space_Station just passed straight through a thick green fog of #aurora…eerie but very beautiful. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake

A new room was just added to the ISS last weekend when the BEAM experimental expandable habitat was attached to a port on the Tranquility module using the robotic arm.

BEAM was carried to the ISS inside the unpressurized trunk section of the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo ship.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Watch Fast and Furious All-sky Aurora Filmed in Real Time

If seeing the Northern or Southern Lights hasn’t been crossed off your bucket list yet, this video is the next best thing to seeing the aurora live. Astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault has captured spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis from Norway, filmed in real time.

“I was in Norway in early November,” Thierry told Universe Today, “this was my 5th stay and really the best one, with incredible auroras. At moments they were so large and fast that we didn’t know where to look.” He added they were “totally hypnotic.”

The 16-minute video includes 6 of the best sequences Legault captured. “I included the start and finish of the sequences to show their behavior to people who have never witnessed them,” he said. “The auroras seem to be alive, sometimes like snakes or rivers.”

Legault used a Sony Alpha 7s, which he says is the only camera able to record video like this in such lighting. The video is recorded at 25 frames a second.

For the best view of the video, switch to full HD mode (1080p) and full screen.

Legault has been going to Norway annually to see the aurora. Here are the views he captured last year.

See more of Legault’s work at his website. He has technical pages there with advice for capturing the night sky. He provides more details and tips in his excellent book, Astrophotography.

Does the Red Planet Have Green Auroras?

Martian auroras will never best the visual splendor of those we see on Earth, but have no doubt. The Red Planet still has what it takes to throw an auroral bash. Witness the latest news from NASA’s MAVEN atmospheric probe

In December 2014, it detected widespread auroras across Mars’ northern hemisphere dubbed the “Christmas Lights”. If a similar display happened on Earth, northern lights would have been visible from as far south as Florida.

“It really is amazing,” says Nick Schneider who leads MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team at the University of Colorado.  “Auroras on Mars appear to be more wide ranging than we ever imagined.”

A beautiful curtain of rays spread across the northern sky just last night (May 12) as seen from Duluth, Minn. Aurora colors on Earth are caused by the excitation of nitrogen and oxygen atoms from high-speed particles from the solar wind. Oxygen is responsible for most of the aurora's greens and reds. Credit: Bob King
A beautiful curtain of auroral rays spreads across the northern sky last night (May 12) as seen from Duluth, Minn. Aurora colors on Earth are caused by the excitation of nitrogen and oxygen atoms by high-speed particles in the solar wind. Oxygen in particular is responsible for most of the aurora’s greens and reds. Credit: Bob King

Study the map and you’ll see the purple arcs extend to south of 30° north latitude. So what would Martian auroras look like to the human eye? Would we see an arcade of nested arcs if we faced east or west from 30°N? Well, er, yes, if you could see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Mars’ atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, so most of the auroral emissions occur when high speed solar wind particles ionize CO2 molecules and carbon monoxide to produce UV light. Perhaps properly suited-up bees, which can see ultraviolet, would be abuzz at the sight.

High-speed particles from the Sun, mostly electrons, strike oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA
High-speed particles from the Sun, mostly electrons, strike oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. As they return to their “relaxed” state, they emit light in characteristic colors. Credit: NASA

That’s not the end of the story however. Martian air does contain 0.13% oxygen, the element that puts the green and red in Earth’s auroras. The “Christmas Lights” penetrated deeply into Mars’ atmosphere, reaching an altitude of just 62 miles (100 km) above its surface. Here, the air is relatively thicker and richer in oxygen than higher up, so maybe, just maybe Christmas came in green wrapping.

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA
Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their “peaks”, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

Nick Schneider, who leads MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument team, isn’t certain but thinks it’s possible that a diffuse green glow could appear in Mars’ sky during particularly energetic solar storms.

A magnetosphere is that area of space, around a planet, that is controlled by the planet's magnetic field. The shape of the Earth's magnetosphere is the direct result of being blasted by solar wind, compressed on its sunward side and elongated on the night-side, the magnetotail. Credits: NASA
Earth’s  magnetosphere, an area of space that’s controlled by the planet’s magnetic field, guides solar wind electrons and protons along magnetic field lines into the atmosphere in the polar regions  to create auroras. The planet’s field is created by electric currents generated in its outer nickel-iron core.
Credits: NASA

While the solar wind produces auroras at both Earth and Mars, they originate in radically different ways. At Earth, we’re ensconced in a protective planet-wide magnetic field. Charged particles from the Sun are guided to the Earth’s poles by following a multi-lane freeway of  global magnetic field lines.  Mars has no such organized, planet-wide field. Instead, there are many locally magnetic regions. Particles arriving from the Sun go where the magnetism takes them.

“The particles seem to precipitate into the atmosphere anywhere they want,” says Schneider. “Magnetic fields in the solar wind drape across Mars, even into the atmosphere, and the charged particles just follow those field lines down into the atmosphere.”

Maybe one day, NASA or one of the other space agencies will send a lander with a camera that can shoot long time exposures at night. We’ll call it the “Go Green” initiative.

Surprise – Mars Has Auroras Too!

Just a day after skywatchers at mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in energetic ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.

Detected by MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument over five days before Dec. 25, 2014, the ultraviolet auroras have been nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights.” They were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and are the result of Mars’ atmosphere interacting directly with the solar wind.

Map of the UV aurora detected on Mars in Dec. 2014 (University of Colorado)
Map of the UV aurora detected on Mars in Dec. 2014 (University of Colorado)

While auroras on Earth typically occur at altitudes of 80 to 300 kilometers (50 to 200 miles) and occasionally even higher, Mars’ atmospheric displays were found to be much lower, indicating higher levels of energy.

“What’s especially surprising about the aurora we saw is how deep in the atmosphere it occurs – much deeper than at Earth or elsewhere on Mars,” said Arnaud Stiepen, IUVS team member at the University of Colorado. “The electrons producing it must be really energetic.”

To a human observer on Mars the light show probably wouldn’t be very dramatic, though. Without abundant amounts of oxygen and nitrogen in its thin atmosphere a Martian aurora would be a dim blue glow at best, if not out of the visible spectrum entirely.

This isn’t the first time auroras have been spotted on Mars; observations with ESA’s Mars Express in 2004 were actually the first detections of the phenomenon on the Red Planet. Made with the spacecraft’s SPICAM ultraviolet spectrometer, the observations showed that Mars’ auroras are unlike those found anywhere else in the Solar System in that they are generated by particle interactions with very localized magnetic field emissions, rather than a globally-generated one (like Earth’s).

(So no, it’s not a total surprise… but it’s still very cool!)

In addition to auroras MAVEN also detected diffuse but widespread dust clouds located surprisingly high in the Martian atmosphere. It’s not yet understood what process is delivering dust so high – 150-300 kilometers up (93-186 miles) – or if it is a permanent or temporary feature.

Read more in the MAVEN news release here.

Source: NASA and Nature

 

 

Powerful Magnetic Storm Produces Beautiful Aurora Around the World

The strong geomagetic storm surprised early risers yesterday on St. Patrick’s Day with a spectacular display of the northern lights, ended up with staying power. According to Spaceweather.com, a fast-moving CME hit Earth’s magnetic field that at first had little effect. But as Earth moved into the CME’s strongly-magnetized wake, the storm intensified until it became a G4-class event. “For more than 9 hours, it was the strongest geomagnetic storm of the current solar cycle,” and the glow of aurora was seen around the world — in the northern hemisphere, anyway — farther south than usual, such as in Kanasa and Virginia in the US and in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire in the UK.

Speaking of ‘around the world,’ astronaut Terry Virts took the Vine video above, from the International Space Station.

Below are more aurora images from Universe Today readers:

Powerful Aurora Borealis from March 18, 2015.Photographed in Saaremaa, Estonia. Credit and copyright: Marko Palm.
Powerful Aurora Borealis from March 18, 2015.Photographed in Saaremaa, Estonia. Credit and copyright: Marko Palm.
Aurora on St. Patrick's Day night, seen west of Keene, Ontario, Canada at about 10:00 p.m. EDST. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz
Aurora on St. Patrick’s Day night, seen west of Keene, Ontario, Canada at about 10:00 p.m. EDST. Credit and copyright: Rick Stankiewicz
Aurora borealis as seen from Leek in Staffordshire, England on March 17, 2015. Credit and copyright:  Gareth Harding.
Aurora borealis as seen from Leek in Staffordshire, England on March 17, 2015. Credit and copyright: Gareth Harding.
90 Minute Aurora Star Trails as seen from the UK on March 17, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mary Spicer.
90 Minute Aurora Star Trails as seen from the UK on March 17, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mary Spicer.

The team from the Slooh telescope had a special broadcast last night from Iceland to showcase the aurora, and the skies were alive with brilliant, green aurora. Here is a highlight, showcasing some of the incredible moments:

Green and Red Auroras Light Up St. Patrick’s Day Dawn

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day - a

A strong G3 geomagetic storm surged across the planet this morning producing a spectacular display of the northern lights. Some of you may who may have risen to see the new nova were no doubt as surprised as the NOAA space weather folks, whose overnight forecast did not include an alert for even a minor storm.

So what happened? Let’s just say the Sun isn’t always as predictable as we’d like. An interplanetary shock wave in the form of a sudden increase in the solar wind speed from 250 miles per second to 375 mph (400-600 km/sec) began blasting Earth shortly before midnight. It appears the combined effects of earlier coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and an outpouring of high-speed solar particles from a gaping hole in the Sun’s magnetic canopy crashed through Earth’s magnetic defenses.

Particle-wise, all hell broke loose. You can start looking for more as soon as it gets dark tonight.

A powerful X2.2-class flare from sunspot region 2297 glows fiery yellow in this photo taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 11, 2015. Credit: NASA
A powerful X2.2-class flare from sunspot region 2297 glows intensely in this photo taken in short wavelength ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 11, 2015. Credit: NASA Goddard SDO

We know that recent flares from sunspot group 2297 have sent more than a few billows of solar particles our way called CMEs or coronal mass ejections. Weekend forecasts called for minor storms but little materialized. Only when we thought it was safe to go back to bed did the aurora pounce. Reading the magnetospheric tea leaves, better known as the Kp index, a measure of magnetic activity high overhead in Earth’s ionosphere, quiet conditions gave way to auroral abandon starting around 1 a.m (CDT) today.

A wall of colorful red and green aurora met the eye and camera of Jim Schaff of Duluth this morning around 3 a.m. CDT. Credit: Jim Schaff
A wall of colorful red and green aurora met the eye and camera of Jim Schaff of Duluth this morning around 3 a.m. CDT. Credit: Jim Schaff

Like a spring grassfire the northern lights took off from there and burned till dawn, peaking between 2 and 4 a.m. Most of us are usually asleep during those deep hours of the night, but I’m hoping those who arose to see the nova or catch the lunar crescent at dawn may have been as surprised and delighted as I was to see auroras.

Like paw prints made by a cat, pale green auroral rays mark the northern sky around 5:45 a.m this morning March 17. Credit: Bob King
Like paw prints made by a cat, pale green auroral rays mark the northern sky around 5:45 a.m this morning March 17. Credit: Bob King

More are in the offing. The latest space weather forecast calls for continued severe storms (G3 or higher) to continue through tonight. G1 or minor storms are normally only visible as arcs or low rays across the north from the northern tier of states, but if tonight’s forecast holds, a fair portion of the U.S. should see auroras. Keep an eye peeled for bright, moving glow and arcs across the northern sky.

The awesome 30-minute aurora forecast map updates the shrinking and expanding of Earth's northern auroral oval due to changes in the solar wind from CMEs, flares and the like. This view is from this morning around 4:55 a.m. Red indicates intense aurora. Credit: NOAA
The awesome 30-minute aurora forecast map updates the shrinking and expanding of Earth’s northern auroral oval due to changes in the solar wind from CMEs, flares and the like. This view is from this morning around 4:55 a.m. Red indicates intense aurora. Credit: NOAA

There are lots of tools available you can use yourself to know if auroras are lurking about. First, check the NOAA 3-day space weather forecast. There you’ll see a list of times along with a Kp index number indicating magnetic activity. Number “1-4” means no storm and little likelihood you’ll see an aurora. “5”  indicates a minor storm; the higher the number the more severe the storm and more widespread the northern lights will be.

Curtains of aurora still pushed through the growing light of dawn. Credit: Bob King
Curtains of aurora still pushed through the growing light of dawn (blue sky at top). Credit: Bob King

There’s also a nice visual representation of the numbers on the Planetary K-index site, where magnetic activity is updated every 3 hours.  The dashed line on the bar chart represents 0 UT or 7 p.m. CDT. One of my favorites and the ultimate visual feast of an aurora indicator is NOAA’s Aurora 30-minute Forecast. Here you get a birds-eye representation of the current aurora based on satellite data. When the permanent auroral oval expands southward and intensifies, put on your coat and head out for a look. For education and entertainment, click on the gray arrow below the graphic and you’ll see a whole day’s worth of activity play out before your eyes. Totes cool.

ACE plot from a June 2013 aurora. Note the steep drop in the Bz. Credit: NOAA
ACE plot from a June 2013 aurora. Note the steep drop in the Bz. ACE  orbits around the L1 Lagrange point about a million miles ahead of Earth in the direction of the Sun. There it studies the incoming particle streams from the Sun hours before they reach Earth. Credit: NOAA

I’m also in big believer in the the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) Bz plot. Bz is the direction of the embedded solar magnetic field that gift-wraps the streams of high-speed particles sent our way by the Sun. Like a magnet, it has a south pole and a north pole. When the south pole of the field sweeps by – what scientists call a negative Bz – the blast is more likely to link up with Earth’s magnetic field and spark auroras. When you see the Bz “head south” to -5 or lower, there’s a chance for auroras.

Now that you’re armed with information, cross your fingers all the indicators will point in the right direction for the aurora to continue tonight. And yes, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Skiing stop to take in the northern lights near Fairbanks Monday night. Credit: John Chumack
Skywatchers stop to take in the northern lights near Fairbanks Monday night. Credit: John Chumack

UPDATE: The storm continues and is now rated G4 or severe as of 10 a.m. CDT. Lucky for you if you live somewhere where it’s dark right now.

Watch the Aurora Shimmer and Dance in Real Time

I for one have never witnessed the northern lights in person, and like many people I experience them vicariously through the photography and videos of more well-traveled (or more polar-bound) individuals. Typically these are either single-shot photos or time-lapses made up of many somewhat long-exposure images. As beautiful as these are, they don’t accurately capture the true motion of this upper atmospheric phenomenon. But here we get a look at the aurora as it looks in real time, captured on camera by Jon Kerr from northern Finland. Check it out above or watch in full screen HD on YouTube.

The video was shot with a full-frame mirrorless Sony a7S. See more of Jon’s aurora videos on YouTube here.

Video credit: Jon Kerr. HT SunViewer on Twitter.