Nov 25, 2010

Viewing the aurora from space: Earth aurora and Saturn Aurora

All images via NASA

You’ve seen amazing images of the Aurora Borealis and its counterpart, the Aurora Australis, but now you have a chance to see them as never before: from space. If you think the view down on Earth is incredible beyond words, wait until you see what these natural light phenomena look like from the International Space Station and through the lens of the Hubble Telescope.

Auroras are created when charged particles from the sun, called the solar wind, interact with the magnetic shield that surrounds our planet (and other planets as well). On Earth, this magnetic shield, called the magnetosphere, protects us from radiation by pushing the solar wind around it. Electromagnetic waves and electric fields are created, then transfer their energy into electrons that interact with oxygen and nitrogen to create the beautiful natural light display we know as Aurora.

Beautiful Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis was named by Pierre Gassendi in 1621 after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for north wind. The Cree called it the “Dance of the Spirits.” 

< In this picture of the Aurora Borealis, the Manicouagan Impact Crater, located in northern Canada, can be seen 300 km below. International Space Station Science Officer Don Pettit said that “changing auroras appeared to crawl around like giant green amoebas” in orbit.

Auroras become more visible the closer one gets to either the north or south poles. At these extreme ends of the Earth, they may appear high up in the sky overhead, but farther away, they seem to rise up from the horizon as a green glow with tinges of red, like the “red crown” of Aurora Australis, seen in the picture below. This image almost looks like a treasure map: follow the trail and get to what looks like a legendary castle from space.
Follow the Trail

Another image of the southern lights almost looks like loops of light created by huge glow sticks (Below); 
Loop de loop

and here’s the amazing view that the astronauts at the International Space Station get to see:
An Astronaut’s View

In the image below, the view of the Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station includes the shining lights of Finland, Russia, Estonia and Latvia. The Praesepe or Beehive Cluster in the constellation Cancer can be seen to the lower right of the moon, with Saturn to the right of that.
Take Me To the Moon

And if you thought Auroras were spectacular on Earth, check out these two pictures of amazing light shows on Jupiter and Saturn:

Auroras on Jupiter and Saturn

Aurora on Jupiter
Aurorae on Saturn  

 This incredible image of Saturn features its famed rings and Auroras at either end of the planet.

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