The Northern/Southern Lights from the International Space Station
An Aurora Blankets Midwest
Earth's Fireworks from Above
Wow. As the sun approaches solar maximum in 2013 (ish), it churns with sunspots and solar flares that are putting on a light show for us on Earth.
What causes the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Australis (Southern Lights)? The sun is constantly sending off streams of electrically charged particles, buffeting the Earth from afar. The Earth's magnetic field deflects these particles towards the poles, where they strike the upper atmosphere and cause it to light up like the gases in a neon tube. The irregular ripples, swirls and curtains of these auroras are like clumps and swirls of snow hitting a car's windshield. (For a more detailed explanation, see NASA's "What Triggers Eruptions of the Northern Lights.")
When the sun is especially active with more and larger solar flares, the Earth's magnetic field cannot shunt all the particles to the poles as easily, so the Northern Lights may be seen much further south. Several times in the fall of 2011, they have been spotted in New England, Colorado (you gotta see these pictures), or even as far south as Arkansas.
Auroras seen from the ground are spectacular. But have you ever seen videos of them from space? For the last several years, astronauts have been taking time-lapse photos of Earth from the International Space Station and sharing them with us. This autumn's light show has been particularly stunning from above as well as below. Sometimes, it's fun to set the science of science aside and just enjoy Earth's beauty.
ISS Over Australia (note wildfires) - September 17, 2011
More Beautiful Flyovers of Earth
What is there to say? Here's a few more wonderful videos from NASA, this next one flying over the midwestern U.S. at night. The white flashes are lightning bolts seen from space.
ISS Flying Over the Midwest at Night
Kick Back and Enjoy This Next Video in Fullscreen
Youtube user Bitmeizer strung together a bunch of NASA videos (which are public domain -- our tax dollars at work) and added a soundtrack to fit the visuals. I recommend watching this one in HD. It really does capture the beauty of our lovely planet. Humans' little lights shine like campfires below the clouds, which ripple with sparks like a living thing, and then the sun plays a symphony on the Earth's atmosphere from above.
If you want to see this fullscreen -- which is awesome! -- go to the video on YouTube, change "360p" to "1080p", and then click the 4 "zoom out" arrows on the lower right-hand corner of the video's control strip.
Beautiful Flyovers of Earth from International Space Station
Beautiful Northern Lights Photos
This book covers the science of the Northern Lights, including fascinating trivia, as well as 100 spectacular photos of auroras over Alaska during the 2002 solar max.
On a More Serious Note...
- If the Massive Solar Flare of 1859 Happened Today...
Most Northern/Southern Lights are harmless light shows causing no damage. But a solar flare in 1859 caused power spikes and disrupted the world's telegraph system. How much damage could a massive solar flare do to power and communications today?