Lights in the Sky

An auroral display sparked by the Sun’s recent outbursts was captured by photographer Antti Pietikäinen in the sky over Muonio, Finland, on March 11, 2012. Watch this short but oh-so-sweet video and wish you were there!

See more of Antti’s work at www.northframe.net.

Heads Up: It’s Another Mind-Blowing Aurora Photo

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Photographer Ole Christian Salomonsen is a master at capturing the northern lights in all their glory… as this image once again shows.

Ole describes the story behind this photo:

“Shot at the end of a ‘weak’ aurora night in Muonio, Finland. Took this at outside the cabin I was staying at close to Harriniva. The outburst came from an CME that first started disappointingly weak. I was about to go to bed but thought I should wait just a little more and see. Man am I glad I waited!!”

Man, are we glad too! Thanks for sharing these amazing views with us Ole, and keep up the great (and chilly) work!

Image © Ole Salomonsen. Used with permission. See more of Ole’s work on www.arcticlightphoto.no.

The Meteor and the Nordlys

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A meteor slices through the glow of the northern lights (or “Nordlys”) in this photo by Adon Buckley, taken near the border of Norway and Finland on the night of October 19, 2011.

“The weather was against us, it was raining heavily in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø,” Adon describes on his Flickr page. “We drove for 2 hours and waited on the Norwegian/Finish border for 3 more and this was at the start of the show on October 19th.”

He adds, “I actually missed the shooting star when it happened, but my friend told me and I was eager to check the exposure when I got home.”

Great catch, Adon! And a wonderful photo as well.

See more of Adon’s photos on his Flickr photostream here.

Image © Adon Buckley. Used with permission.

The Northern and Southern Lights – What is an Aurora?

For many people around the world the ability to see the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis is a rare treat. Unless you live north of 60° latitude (or south of -60°), or who have made the trip to tip of Chile or the Arctic Circle at least once in their lives, these fantastic light shows are something you’ve likely only read about or seen a video of.

But on occasion, the “northern” and “southern lights” have reached beyond the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and dazzled people with their stunning luminescence. But what exactly are they? To put it simply, auroras are natural light displays that take place in the night sky, particularly in the Polar Regions, and which are the result of interaction in the ionosphere between the sun’s rays and Earth’s magnetic field.

Description:

Basically, solar wind is periodically launched by the sun which contains clouds of plasma, charged particles that include electrons and positive ions. When they reach the Earth, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, which excites oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. During this process, ionized nitrogen atoms regain an electron, and oxygen and nitrogen atoms return from an excited state to ground state.

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. Credit: NASA

Excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon of light, or by collision with another atom or molecule. Different gases produce different colors of light – light emissions coming from oxygen atoms as they interact with solar radiation appear green or brownish-red, while the interaction of nitrogen atoms cause light to be emitted that appears blue or red.

This dancing display of colors is what gives the Aurora its renowned beauty and sense of mystery. In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the Aurora Borealis, named after the Roman Goddess of the dawn (Aurora) and the Greek name for the north wind (Boreas). It was the French scientist Pierre Gassendi who gave them this name after first seeing them in 1621.

In the southern latitudes, it is known as Aurora Australis, Australis being the Latin word for “of the south”. Auroras seen near the magnetic pole may be high overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red. The auroras are usually best seen in the Arctic and Antarctic because that is the location of the poles of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The South Pole Telescope under the aurora australis (southern lights). Photo by Keith Vanderlinde
The South Pole Telescope under the aurora australis (southern lights). Credit: Keith Vanderlinde

Names and Cultural Significance:

The northern lights have had a number of names throughout history and a great deal of significance to a number of cultures. The Cree call this phenomenon the “Dance of the Spirits”, believing that the effect signaled the return of their ancestors.

To the Inuit, it was believed that the spirits were those of animals. Some even believed that as the auroras danced closer to those who were watching them, that they would be enveloped and taken away to the heavens. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the auroras were commonly believed to be a sign from God.

According to the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá (ca. 1230 CE), the first encounter of the norðrljós (Old Norse for “northern light”) amongst the Norsemen came from Vikings returning from Greenland. The chronicler gives three possible explanations for this phenomena, which included the ocean being surrounded by vast fires, that the sun flares reached around the world to its night side, or that the glaciers could store energy so that they eventually glowed a fluorescent color.

Auroras on Other Planets:

However, Earth is not the only planet in the Solar System that experiences this phenomena. They have been spotted on other Solar planets, and are most visible closer to the poles due to the longer periods of darkness and the magnetic field.

Saturn Aurora
Image of Saturn’s aurora taken by the Huddle Space Telescope and seen in ultraviolet wavelengths. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

For example. the Hubble Space Telescope has observed auroras on both Jupiter and Saturn – both of which have magnetic fields much stronger than Earth’s and extensive radiation belts. Uranus and Neptune have also been observed to have auroras which, same as Earth, appear to be powered by solar wind.

Auroras also have been observed on the surfaces of Io, Europa, and Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope, not to mention Venus and Mars. Because Venus has no planetary magnetic field, Venusian auroras appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed across the full planetary disc.

An aurora was also detected on Mars on August 14th, 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express. This aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria, in the region of 177° East, 52° South, and was estimated to be quite sizable – 30 km across and 8 km high (18.5 miles across and 5 miles high).

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

Though Mars has little magnetosphere to speak of, scientists determined that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized on the planet. This they concluded by analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor.

More recently, an aurora was observed on Mars by the MAVEN mission, which captured images of the event on March 17th, 2015, just a day after an aurora was observed here on Earth. Nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights”, they were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and (owing to the lack of oxygen and nitrogen in Mars’ atmosphere) were likely a faint glow compared to Earth’s more vibrant display.

In short, it seems that auroras are destined to happen wherever solar winds and magnetic fields coincide. But somehow, knowing this does not make them any less impressive, or diminish the power they have to inspire wonder and amazement in all those that behold them.

We have written many articles about Aurorae here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Aurora Borealis?, What is the Aurora Australis?, What Causes an Aurora?, Your Guide to When, Where, and How to see the Aurora Borealis, Northern and Southern Lights are Siblings, not Twins.

and See the Latest Jaw-Dropping Aurora Views from the ISS.

If you’d like more info on the aurora, check out Space Weather Center, and here’s a link to some amazing Aurora Borealis pictures taken from Alaska.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Aurora. Listen here, Episode 163: Auroras.

Sources:

What is the Aurora Borealis?

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The aurora (plural aurorae) borealis has many other names: northern lights, northern polar lights, polar lights, and more. An aurora borealis is light seen in the sky, nearly always at night, in the northern hemisphere, commonly green but also red and (rarely) other colors; often in the shape of curtains, sheets, or a diffuse glow (when seen from the ground). Northern lights are most often seen at high latitudes – Alaska, Canada, northern Scandinavia, Greenland, Siberia, and Iceland – and during maxima in the solar cycle.

Aurora australis – southern lights – is the corresponding southern hemisphere phenomenon.

Seeing a bright auroral display may be on your list of ‘things to see before I die’! Yep, they are nature’s light show par excellence.

Aurora borealis occur in the Earth’s ionosphere, and result from collisions between energetic electrons (sometimes also protons, and even heavier charged particles) and atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The ultimate origin of the energy which powers the aurora borealis is the Sun – via the solar wind – and the Earth’s magnetic field. Interactions between the solar wind (which carries its own tangled magnetic fields) and the Earth’s magnetic field may cause electrons (and other particles) to be trapped and accelerated; those particles which do not escape ‘downstream’ to the magnetic tail ‘touch down’ in the atmosphere, close to the north magnetic pole.

The different colors come from different atoms or ions; green and red from atomic oxygen, nitrogen ions and molecules make some pinkish-reds and blue-violet; purple is the appearance of combined colors from nitrogen ions and helium; neon produces the very rare orange. The ionosphere is home to most aurorae borealis, with 100-300 km being typical (this is where green is usually seen, with red at the top); however, some particularly energetic particles penetrate much deeper into the atmosphere, down to perhaps 80 km or lower (purple often comes from here).

Viewed from space, when the northern lights are intense they appear as a ring (an oval actually), the auroral zone, with the north magnetic pole near the center.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has a good FAQ on the aurora borealis.

Magnetic fields plus solar wind … so you’d expect aurorae on Jupiter and Saturn, right? And auroral displays around the magnetic poles of these planets are now well documented. Aurorae have also been imaged on Venus, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, and even Io.

Some Universe Today stories on aurorae – borealis, australis, … and extra-terrestrial: What are the Northern Lights?, Aurora Reports from Around the World, Behind the Power and Beauty of the Northern Lights, Northern & Southern Aurorae Are Siblings, But Not Twins, Two Rockets Fly Through Auroral Arc, Chandra Looks at the Earth’s Aurora, First Aurora Seen on Mars, and Saturn’s “Dualing” Aurorae.