Technicolor Auroras? A Reality Check

I shoot a lot of pictures of the northern lights. Just like the next photographer, I thrill to the striking colors that glow from the back of my digital camera. When preparing those images for publication, many of us lighten or brighten the images so the colors and forms stand out better. Nothing wrong with that, except most times the aurora never looked that way to our eyes.

Shocked? I took the photo above and using Photoshop adjusted color and brightness to match the naked eye view. Credit: Bob King
Surprised? I took the photo above and using Photoshop adjusted color and brightness to match the naked eye view. Notice the green tinge in the bright arc at bottom. The rays were colorless. Credit: Bob King

The colors you see in aurora photos ARE real but exaggerated because the pictures are time exposures. Once the camera’s shutter opens, light accumulates on the electronic sensor, making faint and pale subjects bright and vivid. The camera can’t help it, and who would deny a photographer the chance to share the beauty? Most of us understand the magic of time exposures and factor in a mental fudge factor when looking at astronomical photos including those of the aurora.

But photos can be misleading, especially so for beginners, who might anticipate “the second coming” when they step out to watch the northern lights only to feel disappointment at the real thing. Which is too bad, because the real aurora can make your jaw drop.

A massive wall of bright purple and green rays from July 20, 2012. Details: 16mm at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 20 second exposure. Credit: Bob King
A massive wall of bright purple and green rays from July 20, 2012. Details: 16mm at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 20 second exposure. Credit: Bob King

That’s why I thought it would instructive to take a few aurora photos and tone them down to what the eye normally sees.  Truth in advertising you know. I’ve also started to include disclaimers in my captions when the images show striking crimson rays. Veteran aurora watchers know that some of the most memorable auroral displays glow blood-red, but most of the ruddy hues recorded by the camera are simply invisible to the eye. Our eyes evolved their greatest sensitivity to green light, the slice of the rainbow spectrum in which the sun shines most intensely. We’re slightly less sensitive to yellow and only a 1/10 as sensitive to red.

Image adjusted to better represent the visual view. Credit: Bob King
Image adjusted to better represent the visual view. Most auroras are between 60 and 150 miles high, but occasionally reach to 400 miles. Credit: Bob King

A typical aurora begins life as a pale white band low in the northern sky. If we’re lucky, the band intensifies, crosses the color threshold and glows pale green. Deeper and brighter greens are also common in active and bright auroras, but red is elusive because are eyes are far less sensitive to it than green. Often a curtain of green rays will be topped off by red, blue or purple emission recorded with sumptuous fidelity in the camera. What does the eye see? Smoky, colorless haze with hints of pink. Maybe.

Again, this doesn’t mean we only see green and white. I’ve watched brilliant (pale) green rays stretch from horizon to zenith with their bottoms bathed in rosy-purple, a most wonderful sight. Another factor to keep in mind is dark adaption – the longer you’ve been out under a dark sky, the more sensitive your eyes will be to whatever color might be present. At night, however, we’re mostly color blind, relying on our low-light-sensitive rod cells to get around. Cone cells, fine-tuned for color vision, are activated only when light intensity reaches certain thresholds. That happens often when it comes to auroral green but less so with other colors to which our cells are less responsive.

Excitation of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules by incoming solar electrons causes them to give off specific colors shown here. Credit: NCAR
Incoming auroral electrons excite oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules which then shoot out photons of light at specific wavelengths when they return to their ground states. Oxygen beams light at 557.7 (green) and 603 (red) nanometers. Credit: NCAR

Auroral colors originate when electrons from the sun spiral down Earth’s magnetic field lines like firemen on a firepole and slam into oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere between 60 and 150 miles (96-240 km) high. Here’s a breakdown of color, atom and altitude:

* Green – oxygen atoms 60-93 miles up (100-150 km)
* Red – oxygen atoms from 93-155 miles (150-250 km)
* Purple – molecular nitrogen up to 60 miles (100 km)
* Blue/purple – molecular nitrogen ions above 100 miles (160 km)

When an electron strikes an oxygen atom for instance, it bumps one of the oxygen’s electrons to a higher energy level. When that electron drops back down to its previous rest or ground state, it emits a photon of green light. Billions of atoms and molecules, each cranking out tiny flashes of light, make an aurora. It takes about 3/4 second for that electron to drop and the atom to release a photon before it’s given another kick from a solar electron. Most auroras are rich with oxygen emission.

The layers of our atmosphere showing the altitude of the most common auroras. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The layers of our atmosphere showing the altitude of the most common auroras. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Higher up, where the air’s so thin it’s identical to a hard vacuum, collisions between atoms happen only about every 7 seconds. With lots of time on their hands, oxygen electrons can transition down to their lowest energy level inside the atom, releasing a photon of red light instead of green. That’s why tall rays often show red tops especially in time exposure photos.

Only during very active geomagnetic storms, when electrons penetrate to low levels in the atmosphere, are they able to excite molecules of nitrogen, giving rise to the familiar purple fringes at the bottoms of bright rays. Bombarded molecular nitrogen ions at high altitude release a deep blue-purple light. Rarely visible to the eye, I did record it one night in the camera.

A striking coronal aurora in Feb. 1999 photographed on film. The red in this aurora was obvious to the naked eye but appeared more like the Photoshopped version at right. Credit: Bob King
A striking coronal aurora in Feb. 1999 photographed on film. The red in this aurora was obvious to the naked eye but appeared more like the Photoshopped version at right. Credit: Bob King

While videos hint at how wildly dynamic auroras can be, they’re no substitute for seeing one yourself. That’s why I never seem to get to bed when that first tempting glow appears over the northern horizon. Colorful or colorless, you’ll be astonished at how the aurora constantly re-invents itself in a multitude of forms from arcs to rays to flaming patches and writhing curlicues. Don’t miss the chance to see one. If there’s one thing that looks absolutely unearthly on this green Earth, it’s the aurora borealis. Click HERE for a guide on when and where to watch for them.


A Color View of Darling Dione

Color-composite of Dione made from raw Cassini images acquired on Dec. 23, 2012. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.)

Although made mostly of ice and rock, Saturn’s moon Dione (pronounced dee-oh-nee) does have some color to it, as seen in this color-composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini on December 23.

700 miles (1120 km) wide, Dione is covered pole-to-pole in craters and crisscrossed by long, bright regions of “wispy line” terrain — the reflective faces of sheer ice cliffs and scarps that are too steep for darker material drifting in from Saturn’s E ring to remain upon.

The composite  was assembled from raw images captured in red, green and blue visible light wavelengths by Cassini from a distance of 154,869 miles (249,238 km).

The view above looks at a region on Dione’s mid-northern hemisphere. The bright-walled crater in the center surrounded by warmer-hued terrain is named Creusa, and the long rift system next to it is Tibur Chasmata, which runs north-to-south. Dione’s north pole is to the upper left.

Dione’s heavily cratered areas are most common on its trailing hemisphere. Logically, a moon’s leading hemisphere should be the more heavily cratered, so it has been hypothesized that a relatively recent impact spun Dione around 180 degrees. The moon’s small size mean that even a modest-scale impact could have done the job.

Relative sizes of Earth, Moon and Dione (J. Major)

Dione orbits Saturn at a distance of 209,651 miles (377,400 km), closer than our Moon is to us.

See more images and news from the Cassini mission here. And for more on Dione, see some of my previous posts on Lights in the Dark.

Saturn’s Strange Hexagon – In Living Color!

Color-composite Cassini image of Saturn’s northern hexagon (NASA/JPL/SSI/Jason Major)

Cassini sure has been busy these past few days! After returning some mind-blowing images of the swirling 3,000-km-wide cyclone over Saturn’s north pole the spacecraft pulled back to give a wider view of the ringed giant’s upper latitudes, revealing one of its most curious features: the northern hexagon.

The image above is a color-composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini on November 28 from a distance of 379,268 miles (610,373 kilometers) away. Because the color channels were of a much lower resolution than the clear-filter monochrome image, the color is approximate in relation to individual atmospheric details. Still, it gives an idea of the incredible variation in hues around Saturn’s northern hemisphere as well as clearly showing the uncannily geometric structure of the hexagon.

(Can I get another “WOW”?)

Made of a band of upper-atmospheric winds, for some reason at this latitude the stream forms a six-sided hexagonal shape. The entire structure is about 25,000 km across — large enough for four Earths to fit inside! The polar cyclone can be seen at the very center.

First seen by Voyagers 1 and 2 over 30 years ago the hexagon appears to be fixed with Saturn’s rotation rate, which is a remarkably speedy 0.44 Earth-days (about 10.5 hours.)

“This is a very strange feature, lying in a precise geometric fashion with six nearly equally straight sides,” said atmospheric expert and  Cassini team member Kevin Baines back in 2007. “We’ve never seen anything like this on any other planet. Indeed, Saturn’s thick atmosphere where circularly-shaped waves and convective cells dominate is perhaps the last place you’d expect to see such a six-sided geometric figure, yet there it is.”

As scientists puzzled over the mechanisms behind the geometric feature, they came to the conclusion that not only is it a very natural occurrence, it’s also something that is not uncommon in fluid dynamics… apparently its sides are bound by the eddying storms. (Read more in this article by Nicole Gugliucci.)

Here are some more raw images from Cassini’s Nov. 28 pass:

Amazing! Here we are well over 8 years after arriving at Saturn and Cassini is still astounding us almost daily with views of the ringed world. (I knew it was my favorite planet for a reason!)

As always, stay tuned to Universe Today for more!

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Color-composite by Jason Major.


Saturn. In color.

Color-composite of Saturn, made from raw Cassini images acquired in visible light channels on 18 Nov. 2012. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by Jason Major.)

Looking for an awesome view of Saturn as it would look from 1,951,681 kilometers (1,212,718 miles) away? Here you go.

Just my and Cassini’s way of reminding everyone how beautiful our own Solar System is! Lest we forget.

What Curiosity Looks Like From 200 Kilometers Up

Here’s a look down at Curiosity from the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, orbiting approximately  200 km (125 miles) above the surface of Mars. This new image, released today, shows the rover inside Gale Crater surrounded by a skirt of blue-tinted material, including several bright radiating marks –the  result of the descent stage rockets clearing layers of dust from the surface.

In this exaggerated-color view the blue indicates material of a different texture and composition than the surrounding area. HiRISE captures images in visible light wavelengths as well as near-infrared, which we can’t see. To us, the blue material would look grey.

North is up, and Curiosity’s ultimate exploration target, Gale Crater’s central peak, Mount Sharp, is off frame to the lower right.

Click here for a full-size version of the HiRISE image scan, showing the scene above plus some areas further north and south — including portions of the dark dune fields visible in recent images from Curiosity.

It’s nice to know that Curiosity has friends in high places!

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


A New Angle on Titan

Here’s a great shot of Titan and Saturn acquired by Cassini on May 6, 2012 just after a pass by the haze-covered moon. It’s a color-composite made from images taken in Cassini’s red, green and blue color channels, and the resulting image was color adjusted a bit to appear more “Saturny”.

UPDATE 7/2/12: The image above is featured in today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)… check it out here.

Cassini also made some closer passes of Titan on May 6, taking images within about 710,000 km. After recent passes of Encealdus and Dione, Cassini buzzed past Titan in preparation of a targeted flyby on May 22, after which it will head up and out out of the “moonplane” in order to get a better view of Saturn’s rings and upper latitudes.

After that, Cassini won’t be playing amongst the moons again for three years, so images like this will be a rarity for a while.

Another image of Titan, closer-in and set against Saturn’s rings and clouds, shows the fine, transparent structure of the moon’s upper atmospheric haze layers:

Created by the breakdown of methane in Titan’s opaque atmosphere by UV radiation, the haze is composed of complex hydrocarbons that extend outwards up to ten times the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere!

(The RGB layers weren’t available for this particular view, so there’s no color version of it.)

Check out previous images from Cassini’s flyby of Dione and Enceladus, and follow along with the Cassini mission on the JPL site here.

Top image: Color-composite image of Titan and Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major) Bottom image: Titan in blue wavelength against Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI)

MESSENGER Reveals Mercury’s Colors


The subtle yet surprisingly varied colors of Mercury are revealed in the latest images from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, now in its extended mission and second year in orbit.

The image above, a composite of Wide Angle Camera images acquired in 996, 748 and 433 nanometers for red, green and blue, shows a semi-lit limb of Mercury with the bright rayed crater Debussy visible at left. (The image has been rotated 180 degrees from the original, and color saturation was boosted by 25%.)

Named for the French composer Claude Debussy of “Claire de Lune” fame, the crater itself is approximately 50 miles (80 km) wide. It was first detected by ground-based radar telescopes in 1969 as a bright spot.

Now, 43 years later, we have a spacecraft in orbit sending back images like this. Amazing.

The various colors seen across Mercury are due to different mineral compositions of the geologic regions. The exact compositions are not yet known, and the current puzzle that researchers are trying to solve with MESSENGER is to figure out what materials make up Mercury’s complex, multi-hued surface. That will also give a clue as to what’s inside the planet and how it evolved… as well as how it is currently evolving today.

(Read about some surprising discoveries regarding Mercury’s interior.)

The image below is from MESSENGER’s Visual and Infrared Spectrograph (VIRS) and shows a map of Mercury’s surface, with RGB colors corresponding to different mineralogical compositions.

Sinusoidal equal area projection map of Mercury from MESSENGER's VIRS instrument.

Younger surface materials that are brighter at visible wavelengths and less affected by space weathering show up in reds, yellows and greens. Materials that may have relatively higher iron contents show up in blue.

These are Mercury’s “other colors”… maybe not what we would see with our own eyes, but beautiful nonetheless to planetary scientists!

See the above image on the MESSENGER website here.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Photo Treat: Enceladus, Titan and Saturn’s Rings


Little Enceladus and enormous Titan are seen on either side of Saturn’s rings in this image, a color-composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini on March 12, 2012. The original images were taken in red, green and blue color channels, and with a little Photoshop editing I combined them into a roughly true-color view of what Cassini saw as it passed within 1,045,591 km of Enceladus.

Follow along with the Cassini mission here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Edited by Jason Major.