Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Flying through a geomagnetic storm

Date:
March 13, 2012
Source:
NASA
Summary:
Glowing green and red, shimmering hypnotically across the night sky, the aurora borealis is a wonder to behold. Longtime sky watchers say it is the greatest show on Earth. It might be the greatest show in Earth orbit, too. High above our planet, astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been enjoying an up-close view of auroras outside their windows as the ISS flys through geomagnetic storms.

Auroras are beautiful light shows caused by solar activity. Sky watchers say it's the greatest show on Earth but it is also the greatest show in Earth orbit.
Credit: Science@NASA

Glowing green and red, shimmering hypnotically across the night sky, the aurora borealis is a wonder to behold. Longtime sky watchers say it is the greatest show on Earth.

It might be the greatest show in Earth orbit, too. High above our planet, astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been enjoying an up-close view of auroras outside their windows as the ISS flys through geomagnetic storms.

"We can actually fly into the auroras," says eye-witness Don Pettit, a Flight Engineer for ISS Expedition 30. "It's like being shrunk down and put inside of a neon sign."

Auroras are caused by solar activity. Gusts of solar wind and coronal mass ejections strike Earth's magnetic field, rattling our planet's protective shell of magnetism. This causes charged particles to rain down over the poles, lighting up the atmosphere where they hit. The physics is akin to what happens in the picture tube of a color TV.

Incoming particles are guided by Earth's magnetic field to a pair of doughnut-shaped regions called "auroral ovals." There's one around the North Pole and one around the South. Sometimes, when solar activity is high, the ovals expand, and the space station orbits right through them.

That's exactly what happened in late January 2012, when a sequence of M-class and X-class solar flares sparked a light show that Pettit says he won't soon forget. "The auroras could be seen [as brightly as] city lights on the Earth below -- and even in the day-night terminator of the rising and setting sun. It was simply amazing."

Pettit is a skilled astrophotographer. He and other members of the crew video-recorded the displays, producing footage that officials say is some of the best-ever taken from Earth orbit.

The videos capture the full range of aurora colors -- red, green, and many shades of purple. These hues correspond to different quantum transitions in excited atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. The precise color at any altitude depends on the temperature and density of the local atmosphere.

"Red auroras reach all the way up to our altitude 400 km above Earth," says Pettit. "Sometimes you feel like you can reach out and touch them."

"Green emissions, on the other hand, tend to stay below the space station," he says. They move like a living 'shag carpet' of lights. "We fly right over them."

Surprisingly, Pettit does not find this unsettling. "It is not disorienting to see auroras underfoot," he says. "Perhaps it is because I have been up here so long."

What he does find disorienting is the meteors.

"Occasionally we see a meteor burning up in the atmosphere below -- and this does look strange. You should be looking up for meteors not down."

As marvelous as these sights are, Petit has seen better. He was the science officer for ISS expedition 6 back in 2003 when the auroras were even stronger than they were now.

"But this expedition is not over yet," he points out hopefully.

Indeed, more auroras are in the offing. Following some recent years of deep quiet, the sun is waking up again. Solar activity is now trending upward with a maximum expected in early 2013.

This means the greatest show on Earth -- and in Earth orbit -- is about to get even better.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA. The original article was written by Dr. Tony Phillips, Science@NASA. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

NASA. "Flying through a geomagnetic storm." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 March 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120313163921.htm>.
NASA. (2012, March 13). Flying through a geomagnetic storm. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 18, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120313163921.htm
NASA. "Flying through a geomagnetic storm." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120313163921.htm (accessed April 18, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Friday, April 18, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Earth's Near-Twin Found Orbiting Red Dwarf

Earth's Near-Twin Found Orbiting Red Dwarf

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) The newly-discovered planet is roughly the size of Earth and could have liquid water on its surface. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Baby Moon 'Peggy' Spotted In Saturn's Rings

New Baby Moon 'Peggy' Spotted In Saturn's Rings

Newsy (Apr. 15, 2014) A bump in the rings could be a half-mile-wide miniature moon. It was found by accident in Cassini probe images. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Americas Glimpse Total Lunar Eclipse

Americas Glimpse Total Lunar Eclipse

AFP (Apr. 15, 2014) A total lunar eclipse, the first since December 2011, took place early Tuesday morning with the Americas getting the best glimpse. Duration: 1:19 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Showcases Lunar Eclipse

NASA Showcases Lunar Eclipse

AP (Apr. 15, 2014) Star gazers in parts of North and South America got a rare treat early Tuesday morning - a total eclipse of the moon. (April 15) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins