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'Cannibal' sun eruption gives departing astronauts their best aurora views yet

Astronauts at the International Space Station enjoyed the most stunning display of aurora borealis thanks to a cannibal coronal mass ejection.
Astronauts at the International Space Station enjoyed the most stunning display of aurora borealis thanks to a cannibal coronal mass ejection.o (Image credit: ESA/Thomas Pesquet)

Astronauts bidding farewell to the International Space Station enjoyed the most spectacular aurora display of their entire mission over the weekend after a massive blast of material from the sun reached our planet. 

The sun has been acting out lately, waking up to its new period of activity after years of quietness. This variation is part of the sun's regular 11-year cycle, the little understood ebb and flow of sunspots and solar flares that is next expected to peak in 2025.

"We were treated to the strongest auroras of the entire mission, over North America and Canada," European Space Agency's astronaut Thomas Pesquet tweeted with a mesmerizing photo of greenish glow. "Amazing spikes higher than our orbit. Star-struck, and we flew right above the centre of the ring, rapid waves and pulses all over."

Related: Superbright aurora lights up Earth's night side in incredible image from space 

The spectacle must have been quite something since astronauts do get treated to aurora displays fairly regularly. Pesquet himself has shared many images of the magnificent polar lights on his Flickr account since his arrival at the orbital outpost with SpaceX Crew-2 in April.

The latest aurora display was triggered by a series of coronal mass ejections, bursts of magnetized plasma that the sun blasted out last week within a short period of time. The second outburst, travelling a bit faster than the first one, cannibalized its predecessor on the way, resulting in a much more powerful plasma cloud than originally expected. 

European astronaut Thomas Pesquet shared the stunning images with his followers on Twitter.

European astronaut Thomas Pesquet shared the stunning images with his followers on Twitter. (Image credit: ESA/Thomas Pesquet)

Auroras occur in Earth's atmosphere when magnetized plasma particles from the sun hit Earth's magnetic field, creating a temporary magnetic havoc around the planet. In addition to providing the glowing spectacle the magnetic storms can damage satellites and knock out power grids. The worst geomagnetic storm in recorded history, the so-called Carrington Event of 1859, disabled telegraph networks all over Europe and North America. 

For Pesquet and his Crew-2 companions, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, the latest aurora provided a memorable conclusion to their six-month orbital adventure. Crew-2 is set to return to Earth today. You can watch their departure from the orbital outpost aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule here

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.