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Astronauts capture stunning aurora from International Space Station

Astronauts got to see an amazing display of southern lights over New Zealand and Antarctica earlier this month.

Spectacular images and footage of the green-hued aurora flowed from the International Space Station, where the Expedition 66 crew got a view of the Indian Ocean show and shared it on social media.

"I caught this aurora just as orbital sunrise was beginning. Breathtaking!" wrote NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough on Oct. 12, two days after the show took place. With his tweet came a sweeping view of auroras over the barely lit limb of the Earth.

Auroras take place when charged particles from the sun, known as the solar wind, flow along the magnetic field lines of Earth and interact with our atmosphere. As the particles are deflected by the magnetic field to our planet's poles, their interactions with the atmosphere dumps in energy and causes the atmosphere to glow.

Amazing auroras: Stunning northern lights photos

A stunning aurora rips over the Indian Ocean on Oct. 10, 2021, as seen by International Space Station astronauts. Credit: NASA (Image credit: NASA)
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The sun is somewhat near the beginning of a solar cycle, which lasts about 11 years. Each cycle has a "maximum," at which point there is more solar activity manifested as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can cause auroras if any particles flow in the right direction towards Earth.

While we're not near that maximum phase right now, the astronauts had a great viewpoint from their orbit at approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, with no interfering atmosphere in the way. That said, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said eventually the sun stopped observations.

"The view in this #timelapse passes the #aurora to marvel at the stars and then be overwhelmed by a sunrise," Pesquet wrote in a tweet posted on Sunday (Oct. 17).

Although the aurora is beautiful, it could accompany a real danger for astronauts: radiation. NASA has lifetime radiation protocols in place for its spaceflyers to protect against ill effects of radiation events in orbit, which can be associated with conditions such as cancer. The agency is also investigating the exposure for astronauts at future spaceflight destinations such as the moon and Mars.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.