Astronauts got to see an amazing display of southern lights over New Zealand and Antarctica earlier this month.
"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
I caught this aurora just as orbital sunrise was beginning. Breathtaking! pic.twitter.com/8km6i4M5VjOctober 12, 2021
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.
💚🌊 Une aurore polaire, des étoiles et l'éblouissement final du lever de soleil : que demander de plus ? #BonneNuit.💚🌊 The view in this #timelapse passes the #aurora to marvel at the stars and then be overhwelmed by a sunrise. #MissionAlpha pic.twitter.com/M7LDGtqd5lOctober 17, 2021
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace