Cool pictures from space of recent CME event auroras

Overnight on October 4-5, 2012, a mass of energetic particles from the atmosphere of the Sun were flung out into space, a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection. Three days later, the storm from the Sun stirred up the magnetic field around Earth and produced gorgeous displays of northern lights. NASA satellites track such storms from their origin to their crossing of interplanetary space to their arrival in the atmosphere of Earth.

Using the “day-night band” (DNB) of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite acquired this view of the aurora borealis early on the morning of October 8, 2012. The northern lights stretch across Canada’s Quebec and Ontario provinces in the image, and are part of the auroral oval that expanded to middle latitudes because of a geomagnetic storm.

See picture: 

Auroras over North America

acquired October 8, 2012 download large image (2 MB, JPEG, 3677×3677)
acquired October 8, 2012 download Google Earth file (KML)

The DNB sensor detects dim light signals such as auroras, airglow, gas flares, city lights, and reflected moonlight. In the case of the image above, the sensor detected the visible light emissions as energetic particles rained down from Earth’s magnetosphere and into the gases of the upper atmosphere. The images are similar to those collected by the Operational Linescan System flown on U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites for the past three decades.

“When I first saw images like this as a graduate student, I was immediately struck by the fluid dynamic characteristics of the aurora,” said Tom Moore, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Viewing the aurora in this way makes it immediately clear that space weather is an interaction of fluids from the Sun with those of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The electrodynamics make for important differences between plasmas and ordinary fluids, but familiar behaviors (for example, waves and vortices) are still very apparent. It makes me wonder at the ability of apparently empty space to behave like a fluid.”

Auroras typically occur when solar flares and coronal mass ejections—or even an active solar wind stream—disturb and distort the magnetosphere, the cocoon of space protected by Earth’s magnetic field. The collision of solar particles and pressure into our planet’s magnetosphere accelerates particles trapped in the space around Earth (such as in the radiation belts). Those particles are sent crashing down into Earth’s upper atmosphere—at altitudes of 100 to 400 kilometers (60 to 250 miles)—where they excite oxygen and nitrogen molecules and release photons of light. The results are rays, sheets, and curtains of dancing light in the sky.

Auroras are a beautiful expression of the connection between Sun and Earth, but not all of the connections are benign. Auroras are connected to geomagnetic storms, which can distort radio communications (particularly high frequencies), disrupt electric power systems on the ground, and give slight but detectable doses of radiation to flight crews and passengers on high-latitude airplane flights and on spacecraft.

The advantage of images like those from VIIRS and DMSP is resolution, according to space physicist Patrick Newell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “You can see very fine detail in the aurora because of the low altitude and the high resolution of the camera,” he said. Most aurora scientists prefer to use images from missions dedicated to aurora studies (such as Polar, IMAGE, and ground-based imagers), which can offer many more images of a storm (rather than one per orbit) and can allow researchers to calculate the energy moving through the atmosphere. There are no science satellites flying right now that provide such a view, though astronauts regularly photograph and film auroras from the International Space Station.

  1. References

  2. Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison (2012, September 3) Aurora borealis across Canada on VIIRS Day/Night Band imagery. Accessed October 9, 2012.
  3. Earth Science Picture of the Day (2002, January 30) Aurora Observed from Satellite. Accessed October 9, 2012.
  4. Miller, Steven D. et al (2012, September 25) Suomi satellite brings to light a unique frontier of nighttime environmental sensing capabilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 109, Number 39, 15706–15711.
  5. NASA (2002) Aurora: fabled glowing lights of the Sun-Earth Connection. (PDF) Accessed October 9, 2012.
  6. NASA Earth Observatory (2012, July 26) The Lights of London.
  7. NASA Earth Observatory (2011, September 27) Fires in the Sky and On the Ground.

NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using VIIRS Day-Night Band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) and the University of Wisconsin’s Community Satellite Processing Package. Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Mike Carlowicz.

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19 thoughts on “Cool pictures from space of recent CME event auroras

  1. In the bottom right of that photo is a lighted area labelled “Montreal”. I would just like to point out to you folks that the other, and if I may be so bold to say so, more important, point of light to it’s left is OTTAWA! The nation’s Capital!

    Notice how Toronto and Vancouver do not even exist. :-)

  2. The earth travelling through space is analogous to a ship on the ocean. Sometimes the seas are calm, and sometimes, not so calm.

  3. “apparently empty space”. Could it be that the red shift of light is due to loss of energy by light as it travels through apparently empty space? (Its frequency slows down.) Is the universe really expanding? Was there really a big bang? What about the background noise you may say. If light looses enough energy it will eventually become background noise.

  4. I happen to think that impact of the geomagnetic storms on the Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere is underestimated. Not all CMEs, even if the Earth-wards directed, have same effect. If leading edge of the solar magnetic loop has a north magnetic orientation such CME opens a breach and loads the magnetosphere with plasma starting a geomagnetic storm .
    Any possible effect is not only dependant on the strength of the storm, but also on phase in the ‘continuous ripple’ of the Earth’s magnetic field.
    Combining all these together it is possible to reconstruct the natural variability of the North hemisphere’s temperatures.

    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/EarthNV.htm

  5. On the night of December 13, 1862, the northern lights were observed over the Fredericksburg, VA, Civil War battlefield (that’s approximately 50 miles south of Washington DC). To the best of my knowledge those lights haven’t been seen this far south since then. Why?

  6. “On the night of December 13, 1862, the northern lights were observed over the Fredericksburg, VA, Civil War battlefield (that’s approximately 50 miles south of Washington DC). To the best of my knowledge those lights haven’t been seen this far south since then. Why?”

    My dad told me that it was not uncommon to see them from the Sacramento, CA area when he was a kid, farther north than VA, but still…I’ve never seen them. That would be in the thirties, as he was born in ’32.

  7. “It makes me wonder at the ability of apparently empty space to behave like a fluid.”

    Gravity behaves similar to a fluid (space/ether) flowing towards a drain (matter/energy). Similar to throwing an object into a fast moving river, initially the object accelerates quickly, but as it approaches the speed of the flow (relativistic speeds) the acceleration slows to zero.

    This leads to an interesting conjecture, one of the biggest unconfirmed questions in science, whether the “flow” of gravity is limited to the speed of light.

  8. vukcevic says:
    October 11, 2012 at 1:33 am
    I happen to think that impact of the geomagnetic storms on the Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere is underestimated.
    ===========
    Agreed. There is much better agreement between arctic/antarctic ice levels and movement of the earth’s magnetic poles than there is with CO2 changes.

    We know from the paleo data that magnetic pole changes are associated with climate change. We also know that the magnetic poles are changing faster than at an time in history. We also know that CO2 lags, not leads climate change.

    However, the information that CO2 lags climate change is relatively recent. Thus it has not yet been incorporated into the climate theories. They are largely based on confirming work 150 years old.

    However, in science no amount of confirmation can ever prove a theory correct. Science is based on the principle that a single contradiction proves a theory wrong. The growth in Antarctic ice, the leveling of temperatures in spite of record CO2 growth, these are strong indications that something other than CO2 is driving climate change.

  9. This explains why my one clear view of an aurora from Vancouver in 1975 seemed so much like flying an enormous plane through a distantly illuminated snowstorm! The sense of the earth moving relative to the space around us was totally unique and exhilarating.

  10. I cannot argue with the “logic” and “history” of the CAGW theme song about the neither role and nor the influence of CO2 in the earth’s temperature.

    Both are compelling, easily “understood” and easily communicated. (Both dead wrong of course, but compelling in their simplicity.)

    However, until ONE experiment proved it dead wrong – against the consensus of EVERY living physicist and scientific society worldwide – the “theory” of any interstellar aether was also much more logical and compelling than Maxwell’s conjecture of “invisible fields traveling at the speed of light through nothing at all but at the same time constantly changing form and structure – without “losing” anything to friction or direction or gravity!

  11. Kelvin Vaughan says:
    October 11, 2012 at 1:13 am
    ““apparently empty space”. Could it be that the red shift of light is due to loss of energy by light as it travels through apparently empty space? (Its frequency slows down.) Is the universe really expanding? Was there really a big bang? What about the background noise you may say. If light looses enough energy it will eventually become background noise.”

    It seems that much of this is being questioned by scientists with open minds. Here is an interesting article from the most recent issue of Astronomy magazine. It calls the entire Big Bang into question, in my opinion.

    Infinite universe
    November 2012: Recent studies indicate that we can’t see even a small piece of the cosmos

    By Bob Berman — Published: September 24, 2012
    The evidence keeps flooding in. It now truly appears that the universe is infinite.

    This is no small piece of news. The implications are enormous.

    First, though, how do we know? How could we know? It actually has been creeping up on us since the 1990s. Many separate areas of investigation — like baryon acoustic oscillations (sound waves propagating through the denser early universe), the way type Ia supernovae compare with redshift, the Hubble constant, and the flat topology of space — all point the same way.

    I spoke with Shirley Ho earlier this year. She’s part of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team that just studied 900,000 galaxies to give us the best-ever view of cosmic large-scale structure.

    “Our results support an infinite universe,” she says.

    It’s a huge change from the prevailing model of a finite but unbounded cosmos, with a specific quantity of matter and energy but no walls. In the old model, curved space would let a seemingly straight-traveling astronaut zoom past a galaxy a second time, maybe 200 billion years later. But infinity changes things. It means space never ends. It’s a matrix of limitless galaxies, stars, planets, and energy.

    California Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Sean Carroll cautiously noted last spring that while a finite universe would be provable, scientists can never prove infinity. Nonetheless, given the current data, he feels the universe “probably is infinite.”

    If so, he adds, “then either an infinite number of different things happen or a finite number of things happen an infinite number of times. Either possibility is pretty mind-boggling.”

    It means the Big Bang was probably just a local event, a big to-do in the ’hood, confined to only the observable universe. As for the larger universe beyond, if there were a birth, says University of Chicago cosmologist Rocky Kolb, it would have “started out everywhere at once, as infinite from the beginning.”

    This doesn’t bother everyone. Last April, Debra Elmegreen, then president of the American Astronomical Society, shrugged it off: “Even if we can only observe a very small fraction of the universe, that’s plenty to keep us busy.”

    But she slightly misspoke. It’s not a very small percentage that’s observable. You see, any fraction of infinity is essentially zero. It means we cannot see even a few paintbrush strokes of the celestial masterwork. All we can ever hope to study is 0 percent.

    Infinity changes
    things. It means
    space never ends.

    When a sample size is zero, no conclusions are trustworthy.

    Says State University of New York physics professor Tarun Biswas, “All scientific theories are models of nature based on observation. The problem with cosmology is that its current model is based on almost negligible observational data. It would still not be a problem if people did not take it so seriously.”

    Take the idea that everything started from nothingness — that the positive attractive force of all mass and gravity is balanced by the negative repulsiveness of dark energy. The plus and minus cancel out. This universe is zilch.

    Is this valid reasoning or technobabble? In my opinion, you can’t get something from true nothingness. Moreover, calling things positive and negative and then saying they cancel into blankness doesn’t mean they are actually positive or negative except as mental classifications.

    You want the truth? No one knows how the universe materialized or if it even had a birth. The Big Bang’s zero moment remains an utter enigma. Indeed, many such speculations produce eye rolls from physicists like Biswas who believe some shred of observational evidence still has a place in science.

    In any case, current ideas about the Big Bang don’t carry us beyond square one because no one knows anything about the infinite universe from which it arose. We can only guess about the larger cosmos. Will its assumed homogeneity someday be replaced by vast neighborhoods ruled by separate physical laws? It’s far too soon to say. But it’s not too soon to start telling kids that the galaxies and stars probably go on and on without end. And, yes, no one can picture this.

    Astronomy has become a dichotomy. On the one hand, we have facts like the martian rotation period of 24h, 37m, 23s that are rock solid. We know how the stars shine. It’s an exciting time. But bedrock cosmology issues — Was the universe born? What’s its size? What’s it really made of? — remain enigmas. Worse, an infinite universe means that these basics may be unknowable.

    Elmegreen might be content with her 200 billion galaxies. And sure, this playground is vast. It’ll definitely keep us busy. But, face it, our intellects hate blank spaces, especially when they’re enormous. An unknown infinite cosmos isn’t a comfortable development.

    The good news? You won’t be reminded about it. Most astronomers will ignore infinity. They’ll focus on the observable portion, the 0 percent that is ours to explore. What else can they do?

    So I’ll calm down. I won’t keep bringing this up. I’m just going through some sort of celestial Kübler-Ross grief stage, and hopefully I’m on my way to acceptance.

  12. To Andy Werhle:

    Clearly, a powerful magnetic storm coincided with the night after that disastrous battle. The aurora normally isn’t seen that far south except during very strong storms. The stronger the storm, the more the auroral oval expands southward in geomagnetic latitude.

    However, Fredericksburg, VA is approximately at 46 degrees magnetic latitude. We know of a much stronger storm–because Aristotle wrote of seeing what was clearly the aurora over Athens, Greece. Athens is approximately at 32 degrees magnetic latitude.

  13. There is a relationship here with ionizing radiation. One of the “tasks” of the atmosphere, including its carbon dioxide, is to shield life from such harmful solar and cosmic activity. It would be interesting to see further comments on this subject.

  14. Robert of O;
    That would be because the image is cropped to exclude them. Duh.

    E.U., anyone?
    Still waiting for its disparagers and opponents to explain all the “impact” craters on airless planets and moons which are perfectly circular. Which is pretty much all the craters. What are the odds that ALL incoming rocks came in vertically? Or even a significant portion? Can those odds be usefully distinguished from zero?

    Those are electric sputtering marks. All over Mercury, the Moon, and other erosion-free satellites.

  15. Kelvin Vaughan says October 11, 2012 at 1:13 am

    “apparently empty space”. Could it be that the red shift of light is due to loss of energy by light

    To date, I am not aware of the demonstration of any phenomenon which causes ‘loss of energy’ of an EM wave (and of which red light may more than amply be demonstrated to be) in space save for the simple spreading-out of the energy in two dimensions (and from which the inverse square law springs), and this includes distances as far distant as the moon where the ‘path-loss’ equations for microwave radio transmissions to and from Apollo moon mission could be accurately observed and verified … since the transmitted RF powers were known, the antenna gains were known, known also were all preamp gains, and associated noise figures and cable losses; no deviation from expected ‘path-loss’ values were seen from those observed over the shorter ‘paths’ seen during testing of those various systems and sub-systems on earth … so, one would have to conceive of an alternate energy ‘conversion’ scheme from the EM domain into the normal dissipative form known as heat (thermal) energy (as conser. of energy law says energy can neither be created nor destroyed w/o involvement of nuclear processes) in order to see ‘loss’ (not really loss, but rather spreading of the energy in two dimensions from a ‘plane’ wave) other than that due simple to the inverse square law as physics equitably explains.

    .

  16. Brian H says October 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Those are electric sputtering marks. All over Mercury, the Moon, and other erosion-free satellites.

    Oh, that’s funny; the most outrageous thing I’ve seen yet today!

    Of course, we are all aware that lightning is only possible because a cooperative ‘gas’ (actually, atmosphere) is present and may be ‘coerced’ to form (via step-wise leaders initially) a conductive plasma from charge ‘centers’ to either earth or other charge centers …

    Now, a question: Have we observed inter-planetary or inter-‘sun’ electric discharges in other solar systems?

    .

  17. Brian H says October 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Still waiting for its disparagers and opponents to explain all the “impact” craters on airless planets and moons which are perfectly circular.

    An interesting search when googling: elliptical craters

    Notably see: The size-frequency distribution of elliptical craters

    Abstract
    Impact craters are asymmetric and elliptical if the impactor’s trajectory is below a threshold angle of incidence. Laboratory experiments and 3D numerical simulations demonstrate that this threshold angle is higher if the cratering efficiency is low. As cratering efficiency decreases with increasing crater size, this can explain the increase in the fraction of elliptical craters as a function of crater diameter observed on Mars and other planetary surfaces.

    Also: The transition from circular to elliptical impact craters

    1. Introduction
    The vast majority of impact craters on planetary surfaces is circular. This observation implies that the overall shape of craters formed by hypervelocity impacts is not sensitive to the impact angle and direction as it is known that most impacts occur at an oblique incidence angle. However, 5% of impact craters on planetary surfaces are elliptical, with an ellipticity of 1.1 or greater. The frequency of elliptical craters was found to be consistent assuming that impacts at or below about 12° form elliptical craters.

    One must also bear in mind the ‘vector’ of gravity would be normal to a ‘plane’ (and point to the center of the planetary mass as well) of the surface of the planet; I would think this is a strong influence in ‘drawing in’ a foreign object prior to impact with the path much closer to vertical (‘straight in’) than at an angle …

    .

  18. _Jim says:
    October 12, 2012 at 9:02 am

    I would think this is a strong influence in ‘drawing in’ a foreign object prior to impact with the path much closer to vertical (‘straight in’) than at an angle …

    At meteorite incidence speeds, especially on airless moons, etc.? Don’t make me laugh. And all that number-fudging you quoted doesn’t come near to explaining why the vast majority of strikes are oblique, and the vast majority of craters are circular.

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