Astrophotos: Aurora Reflections from Iceland

Our friend Cory Schmitz planned the perfect time to go on a Iceland Aurora photo tour. With the recent activity from the Sun, there have been some great views of the aurora borealis in Iceland. “These images are very close to what the sky actually looked like to the naked eye,” Cory said on G+. “Motion, color, everything. Right above our heads. Insane — what an experience!”

Thanks for sharing the experience, Cory…. but next time, bring us with you, huh?

Aurora Borealis,  shot with a Canon 5DmkII and Canon 14mm f/2.8 LII prime lens at Jökulsarlon beach in Iceland on November 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Cory Schmitz.
Aurora Borealis, shot with a Canon 5DmkII and Canon 14mm f/2.8 LII prime lens at Jökulsarlon beach in Iceland on November 12, 2013. Credit and copyright: Cory Schmitz.

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Put The Aurora Borealis In Your Ear

Do the aurorae makes sounds? That’s been a subject of discussion — and contention — among people who watch the sky. While most of us will never hear the aurora borealis directly, there’s help out there in the form of a little handheld radio. It’s called a VLF receiver and guarantees you an earful the next time the aurora erupts.

High-speed electrons and protons buzzing along Earth's magnetic fields lines emit very low frequency radio waves that human ears can here with a VLF receiver. Credit: Bob King
High-speed electrons and protons buzzing along Earth’s magnetic fields lines emit very low frequency radio waves that human ears can here with a VLF receiver. Credit: Bob King

Despite seeing hundreds of northern light displays ranging from mild to wild, I’ve yet to actually hear what some describe as crackles and hissing noises. There is some evidence  that electrophonic transduction can convert otherwise very low frequency (VLF) radio waves given off by the aurora into sound waves through nearby conductors. Wire-framed eyeglasses, grass and even hair can act as transducers to convert radio energy into low-frequency electric currents that can vibrate an object into producing sound. Similar ‘fizzing’ sounds have been recorded by meteor watchers that may happen the same way.

Laboratory tests reveal that a surprising variety of substances, including frizzy hair and vegetable matter, can act as radio-to-audio VLF transducers. Credit: NASA
Laboratory tests reveal that a surprising variety of substances, including frizzy hair and vegetable matter, can act as radio-to-audio VLF transducers. Credit: NASA

Imagination may be another reason some folks people hear auroras. Things that move often make sounds. A spectacular display of moving lights overhead can trick your brain into serving up an appropriate soundtrack. Given that the aurora is never closer to the ground than 50 miles, the air is far too thin at this altitude to transmit any weak sound waves that might be produced down to your ears.

If you’re like me and hard of auroral hearing, a small VLF (very  low frequency) radio receiver will do the job nicely. This handheld device converts very low frequency radio waves produced from the interaction of the solar electrons and protons with the Earth’s magnetic field into sounds you can listen to with a pair of headphones.

The battery-operated WR-3 VLF (Very Low Frequency) receiver with headphones for tuning in on sounds bouncing around Earth's magnetic field.  Credit: Bob King
The battery-operated WR-3 VLF (Very Low Frequency) receiver with headphones for tuning into sounds “natural” radio broadcast by planet Earth. Credit: Bob King

We’re used to waves of light which are very, very short, measuring in the millionths of an inch long. The pigments in our retinas convert these waves into visible images of the world around us. Radio waves given off by auroras and other forms of natural ‘Earth energy’ like lightning range from 19 to 1,800 miles long or longer. To bring them within range of human hearing we need a radio receiver. I fire up a little unit called a WR-3 I purchased back in the mid-1990s. The components are housed in a small metal box with a whip antenna and powered by a 9-volt battery. The on-off switch also controls the volume. Plug in a set of headphones and you’re ready to listen. That’s all there is to it.

olar wind heading into space and impacting Earth's protective magnetic shield, its magnetosphere. The particles are seen heading out in all directions, but with some of them hitting our magnetosphere. Earth's magnetic field lines are shown in concentric purple ovals, pushed on by pressure from the Sun and elongated on the side facing sway from the Sun. Credit: NASA
The magnetosphere of the Earth is enormous bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet. It’s created through the interaction of the solar wind (yellow lines) and Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetosphere acts as a shield to protect us from dangerous radiation in space. Earth’s magnetic field lines are shown in concentric purple ovals, pushed on by pressure from the Sun and elongated on the side facing sway from the Sun. Credit: NASA

The receiver picks up lots of things besides aurora including a big ‘unnatural’ hum from alternating or AC current in power lines and home appliances. Turn one on in your house and you’ll immediately hear a loud, continuous buzz in the headphones. You’ll need to be at least a quarter mile from any of those sources in order to hear the more subtle music of the planet.


Lightning produces a great variety of radio sounds - sferics, tweeks and whistlers - you can hear with the right receiver.  Credit: Bob King
Lightning produces a great variety of natural radio sounds – sferics, tweeks and whistlers – you can hear with a VLF radio receiver. Credit: Bob King

I drive out to a open ‘radio quiet’ rural area, turn on the switch and raise the antenna to the sky. Don’t stand under any trees either. They’re great absorbers of the low frequency radio energy you’re trying to detect. What will you hear? Read on and click the links to hear the sound files.

* Sferics. The first thing will be the pops, crackles and sizzles of distant lightning called sferics which are similar to the crackles on an AM car radio during a thunderstorm.

* Tweeks. Lightning gives off lots of energy in the long end of the radio spectrum. When that energy gets ducted through the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere over distances of several thousand miles, it emits another type of sound called ‘tweeks‘. These remind me of Star Wars lasers or dripping water. Flurries of tweeks have an almost musical quality like someone plucking the strings of a piano.

* Whistlers and Whistler Clusters. When those same lightning radio waves enter Earth’s magnetosphere and interact with the particles there, they can cycle back and forth between the north and south geomagnetic poles traveling tens of thousands of miles to create whistlers. Talk about an eerie, futuristic sound. After their long journey, the higher frequency waves arrive before those of lower frequency causing the sound to spread out in a series of long, descending tones. The sound may also take you back to those old World War II movies when bombs whistled through the air after dropping from the hatch of a B-17. Tweeks are very brief; whistlers last anywhere from 1/2 to 4 seconds or longer.

* Dawn Chorus. Sometimes you’ll hear dozens of whistlers, one after the other. When conditions are right, a VLF receiver can pick up disturbances in Earth’s magnetic bubble spawned by auroras called ‘chorus‘ or ‘dawn chorus’. Talk about strange. Who would have guessed that solar electrons spiraling along Earth’s magnetic field lines would intone the ardor of frogs or a chorus of birds at dawn? And yet, there you have it.

* More Dawn Chorus: On a good night, and especially when the northern lights are out, it’s a magnetospheric symphony. Thunderstorms thousands of miles away provide a bounty of crackles and tweeks with occasional whistlers. Listen closely and you might even hear the froggy voice of the aurora rising and falling with a rhythm reminiscent of breathing.

The crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus accompanied a spectacular aurora over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. last July. Credit: Bob King
The crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus accompanied a spectacular aurora over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. last July. With solar activity on the upswing and solar maximum predicted for the fall, auroras are more likely than ever in 2013. Credit: Bob King

If you’re interested in listening to VLF and in particular the aurora, basic receivers are available through the two online sites below. I’ve only used the WR-3 and can’t speak for the others, but they all run between $110-135. One word of warning if you purchase – don’t use one when there’s a lightning storm nearby. Holding a metal aerial under a thundercloud is not recommended!

WR-3 VLF receiver from Stephen McGreevy
North Country Radio ELF Earth Receiver

More on natural radio can be found HERE. Things to keep in mind when considering a purchase are whether you have access to an open area 1/2 mile from a power line and away from homes. You’ll also need patience. Many nights you’ll only hear lightning crackles from distant storms thousands of miles away peppered by the occasional ping of a tweet. Whistlers may not appear for weeks at a time and then one night, you’ll hear them by the hundreds. But if you regularly watch the sky, it’s so easy to take the radio along and ‘give a listen’ for some of the most curious sounds you’ll ever hear. How astonishing it is to sense our planet’s magnetosphere through sound. Consider it one more way to be in touch with the home planet.

For more on natural radio including additional sound files I invite you to check out Stephen P. McGreevy’s site.


Timelapse: Incredible Northern Lights from the Arctic Circle

Shot from the Arctic Circle in Canada, this beautiful display of the Aurora Borealis will put you in the holiday mood (I’m sure Santa’s workshop is just beyond one of those mountains in the background!) National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss said the northern lights started around 11:30pm and continued on until around 3am. “The lights were dancing, rolling and twisting and at times looked like they were close enough to touch,” he said.

Just beautiful.

Read more about his Arctic Circle adventure here.

Last Night’s View: Skies Filled with Stunning Aurora

The Aurora Borealis fills nearly the entire sky in Cleary Summit, Alaska. Credit: Jason Ahrns on Flickr.

With just a glancing blow from a coronal mass ejection (CME) this week, skywatchers in the northern latitudes have been enjoying some beautiful views of the Aurora Borealis. Here are a few stunning views from last night (October 8-9, 2012), including this jaw-dropping aurora that filled the entire sky for Jason Ahrns in Cleary Summit, Alaska. “This lens has a near-180 degree field of view from corner to corner – this swirl covered the entire sky, and put off enough light to read the focus indicator on my lens,” Jason wrote on Flickr.

See more below:

This view is from Kilmany, Scotland. “You could see the rays moving left – so stunning,” said photographer Corinne Mills.

This view came from the AuroraMAX camera in Yellowknife, NWT taken at 00:53 MDT on October 9, 2012. Credit: AuroraMAX.

“I’ve been tracking aurora activity all day and it peaked again tonight,” writes photographer Gareth Paxton on Flickr. “There was a substantial glow in the sky – this was taken from Linlithgow (Scotland).”

Northern lights over Ottawa, Canada. Credit: FailedProtostar on Flickr.

Stunning view from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Credit: Colin Chatfield.

Another beauty by Jason Arhns in Alaska, which he calls a “ghost flame.” Credit: Jason Arhns

Green aurora over Ulverston, Cumbria, UK. Credit: Raymond Gilchrist on Flickr.

Mysterious Sounds Made by the Aurora Borealis

Astrophoto: Swirling Aurora by Jason Ahrns

Caption: Swirling Aurora. Image Credit: Jason Ahrns

There have been legends and folktales about sounds associated with auroae, but most accounts were summarily dismissed as imagination or illusion. But researchers in Finland set up microphones in conjunction with an aurora observation site and over the past 12 years captured a “clapping” sound that occurs at certain times when the Northern Lights are ablaze in the sky.

“In the past, researchers thought that the aurora borealis was too far away for people to hear the sounds it made,” said Unto K. Laine from Aalto University in Finland. “However, our research proves that the source of the sounds that are associated with the aurora borealis we see is likely caused by the same energetic particles from the Sun that create the northern lights far away in the sky. These particles or the geomagnetic disturbance produced by them seem to create sound much closer to the ground.”

The researchers installed three separate microphones and were able to record the sounds, which sound similar to crackles or muffled bangs which last for only a short period of time.

They then compared the recordings and determined the location of the sound source was about 70 meters (230 feet) above ground.

They made the recordings along with simultaneous measurements of the geomagnetic disturbances by the Finnish Meteorological Institute. The sounds did not always occur, but when they did, the measurements showed the aurorae were showed of a typical pattern, according the geomagnetic measurements.

The team said that it is not yet scientifically proven that the “clap” sound is related to the aurora borealis, but similar events have been detected only during times of high geomagnetic activity.

“Our research proved that, during the occurrence of the northern lights, people can hear natural auroral sounds related to what they see,” said Laine.
The sounds are quite soft, so one has to listen very carefully to hear them and to distinguish them from the ambient noise, the team said.

Details about how the auroral sounds are created are still a mystery, Laine said. The descriptions of the sounds vary from claps, to distant noise or sputter, and the So, because of these different descriptions, researchers suspect that there are may be several mechanisms behind the formation of these auroral sounds.

Find more information on these mysterious sounds on the team’s website, Auroral Acoustics

Source: Eurekalert

A Continent Ablaze in Auroral and Manmade Light

Video Caption: Up the East Coast of North America. Credit: NASA

The North American continent is literally set ablaze in a confluence of Auroral and Manmade light captured in spectacular new videos snapped by the astronauts serving aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Expedition 30 crew has recently filmed lengthy sequences of images that are among the most stunning ever taken by astronauts flying in orbit some 240 miles (385 kilometers) over the United States and Canada.

Teams working at the Crew Earth Observations center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas have assembled hundreds of individual still images taken onboard the ISS into a series of amazing videos.

Two videos collected here focus on the East and West coasts of North America and show the path traveled by the station from the crew’s perspective as they photographed the light emitted by hundreds of millions of humans living below and the brilliant light of the Aurora Borealis shining above them.

Recently we highlighted a single night time snapshot of the East Coast and tens of millions of humans.

Night time Panorama of US East Coast from the ISS
Astronauts captured this stunning nighttime panorama of the major cities along the East Coast of the United States on Jan. 29. Credit: NASA

Now the NASA team has assembled the entire sequence of images taken on January 29, 2012 from 05:33:11 to 05:48:10 GMT into a video -see above.

The orbital pass runs from Central America just southwest of Mexico and continues to the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Newfoundland. It begins by looking over Central America towards the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States. As the ISS travels northeast over the gulf, some southeastern United States cities can be distinguished, like New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. Continuing up the east coast, some northeastern states, like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City stand out brightly along the coastline. The Aurora Borealis shines in the background as the pass finishes near Newfoundland

The 2nd video is titled “Across Southwest Canada at Night”

This sequence of shots was taken January 25, 2012 from 12:34:11 to 12:36:28 GMT, on a pass from near the border of British Columbia, Canada and Washington state, near Vancouver Island, to southern Alberta, near Calgary.

The main focus of this video is the Aurora Borealis over Canada, which appears very near the ISS during this short and exciting video.

And don’t forget the fabulous ISS shots of Comet Lovejoy taken in December 2011 by Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank.

Comet Lovejoy on 22 Dec. 2011 from the International Space Station. Comet Lovejoy is visible near Earth’s horizon in this nighttime image photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, onboard the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2011. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank

For an otherworldly and eerie perspective, click here to see what a Manmade artifact on the surface of Mars looks like as seen from Mars Orbit – also taken just a few days ago on Jan. 29, 2012, but this time by a robot in place of a human !

Solar Storm Sparks Stunning Aurora

The Earth-directed solar storm we alerted readers to this week has hit, with reports of auroral activity in Russia, Denmark, Scotland, England, and Norway. Helge Mortensen from Tromvik, Norway captured this stunning video. According to, the coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetic field at 0617 UT on Jan. 22nd.

There’s also a live aurora webcam you can watch via this link

Check out the likelihood of seeing aurorae where you live at the NOAA Auroral Activity webpage, which includes maps for both northern and southern hemispheres.

Aurora Alert for September 26 and 27!


Skywatchers in northern Europe are already seeing some aurora activity as a strong-to-severe geomagnetic storm is in progress, according to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center and The fuel for this storm was a coronal mass ejection over the weekend that has now reached Earth. This is great news for skywatchers, as both the Northern and Southern lights should be spectacular. But this is not so good news for satellite companies. The Goddard Space Weather Lab reports a “strong compression of Earth’s magnetosphere. Simulations indicate that solar wind plasma [has penetrated] close to geosynchronous orbit starting at 13:00 UT.” Geosynchronous satellites could therefore be directly exposed to solar wind plasma and magnetic fields.

Predicted auroral oval over the South Pole, for Sept. 27, 2011. Credit: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

The active region on the Sun will be pointed straight at Earth in few days as the Sun rotates, so this could be a week of high auroral activity. If you are able to capture images, send the to Universe Today via email or upload them to our Flickr page, and we’ll share them! See an image below of the Sun from September 25, 2011, showing the Active Region 1302, courtesy of John Chumack.

For more information and updates see the links above, or the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Full Solar Disk in Hydrogen Alpha Light 09-25-2011. Credit: John Chumack. Click for larger version on Flickr.

How Does the Aurora Borealis Form?

Seeing the Northern or Southern Lights is an awe-inspiring experience, but do you know the science behind their beauty? This video from Per Byhring and the physics department at the University of Oslo explains how particles originating from deep inside the core of the Sun creates aurorae in the atmosphere of Earth.

The video takes a look at how cloud of electrically charged particles emanate from the Sun, and what happens when this plasma reaches the Earth and interacts with the planet’s magnetic field, which creates fantastic light shows in the extreme northern and southern latitudes.

Via Scientific American

Real-time Observatory Captures Stunning Recent Auroras


The online observatory AuroraMAX, which offers live-streaming views of Canada’s northern lights, has seen an uptick in recent aurora activity, and the latest images the team has released are nothing short of stunning. The image above was taken early this morning, April 7, 2011. AuroraMAX is monitoring the intensity and frequency of the Aurora Borealis above their cameras in Canada in the years leading up to Solar Maximum, expected in 2013. In addition to nightly broadcasts of the aurora, AuroraMAX is helping demystify the science behind the phenomenon, as well as providing tips for seeing and photographing auroras.

See below for more recent views.

The Aurora Borealis above Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, taken at 00:25 MDT on April 5, 2011. Credit: AuroraMAX
The Aurora Borealis above Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, taken at 01:11 MDT on April 4, 2011 Credit: AuroraMAX
The Aurora Borealis above Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, taken at 03:10 MDT on March 31, 2011 Credit: AuroraMAX

Click each image to access AuroraMAX’s Twitpic page, where they frequently post images from their nightly observations.

And check out the AuroraMAX website for more information on how you can watch nightly webcasts of aurora activity.