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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 (opens in new tab).

"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 (opens in new tab) 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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.