Skywatcher Photos Catch Stunning Northern Lights Display
Astrophotographer Shawn Malone of Marquette, Mich., took this shot of an aurora on Feb. 18, 2012. Malone appears in the photo seated in the chair.
Credit: Shawn Malone

A surprisingly vivid display of the northern lights dominated the night sky in recent days, offering dazzling weekend light shows as far south as Nebraska for observers with clear weather, according to skywatchers.

The northern lights show flared up on Saturday (Feb. 18), when a stream of particles from the solar wind slammed into the Earth's magnetic field to trigger what was by all accounts a magnificent aurora.

"A nice display last night," skywatcher Shawn Malone of Marquette, Mich., told SPACE.com in an email.

Malone snapped amazing photos of the northern lights display as the auroras danced over Lake Superior. It was a frigid night in the single digits on the thermometer, but well worth the wait, she said.

"Superior is just dim enough to allow for a long exposure of 17 minutes to capture star trails revolving around the North Star," Malone said. "I only stayed seated in my Adirondack chair for half of the exposure, as I had to get up and move around to keep warm, hence the transparent appearance of myself!"

Astrophotographer Shawn Malone took this image of an aurora Feb. 18, 2012. She said: "A couple and their dog make their way down the beach stairs to check out the aurora borealis, over Lake Superior, Marquette MI. Can only wonder what the view must have been like from the passing plane pictured as a streak middle frame."
Astrophotographer Shawn Malone took this image of an aurora Feb. 18, 2012. She said: "A couple and their dog make their way down the beach stairs to check out the aurora borealis, over Lake Superior, Marquette MI. Can only wonder what the view must have been like from the passing plane pictured as a streak middle frame."
Credit: ©Shawn Malone/LakeSuperiorPhoto.com

Another of Malone's photos shows a couple walking a dog under the auroras as a plane flies high overhead.

"Can only wonder what the view must have been like from the passing plane, pictured as a streak middle frame," Malone said.

According to astronomer Tony Phillips, who runs the skywatching website Spaceweather.com, the weekend aurora light show was visible far beyond the normal far northern latitudes.

"Northern lights crossed the Canadian border and descended as far south as Nebraska in the United States," Phillips wrote in a Sunday aurora alert.

Auroras are created when charged particles from the sun interact with Earth's upper atmosphere, giving off a glow that can be seen by the unaided eye. The solar particles are funneled over Earth's poles by the planet's magnetic field, making auroras typically visible at latitudes in the far north or south. Southern auroras are known as the southern lights.

A two-stage Terrier-Black Brant rocket arced through aurora about 200 miles above Earth on the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission to study the physics of the northern lights. Stage one of the rocket has just separated and is seen falling back to Earth in this photo taken on Feb. 18, 2012.
A two-stage Terrier-Black Brant rocket arced through aurora about 200 miles above Earth on the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission to study the physics of the northern lights. Stage one of the rocket has just separated and is seen falling back to Earth in this photo taken on Feb. 18, 2012.
Credit: Terry E. Zaperach, NASA

Skywatchers were not the only ones to take advantage of Saturday's amazing auroras.

NASA launched a rocket into the northern lights display late Saturday as part of an experiment to measure the effects of intense aurora activity on signals from global positioning system satellites and other spacecraft. The small suborbital rocket blasted off from the Poker Flat Research Range just north of Fairbanks, Alaska, to probe a 6-mile (10-kilometer) section of the northern lights, which stretched from horizon to horizon, the researchers said.

This story was corrected to reflect that Shawn Malone is female.

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