Seeing an Aurora From the Space Station

From NASA  click on image for high resolution version~ctm

June 13, 2019


Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Christina Koch snapped this image of an aurora, saying: “Years ago at the South Pole, I looked up to the aurora for inspiration through the 6-month winter night. Now I know they’re just as awe inspiring from above. #nofilter”

Image Credit: NASA

Last Updated: June 13, 2019

Editor: Yvette Smith

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Kurt in Switzerland
June 16, 2019 10:50 pm


June 17, 2019 12:28 am

Great image!
Years ago at the South Pole, I looked up to the aurora for inspiration through the 6-month winter night. ”
However, it is less known ” that changes in the Antarctic’s magnetic field (on bi-decadal scale) are closely synchronized and correlated with the TSI, i.e. the solar closed magnetic flux.
As the solar wind approaches the Earth, the wind will press up against the magnetic field of the Earth. Where the pressure of the solar wind balances the pressure of the magnetic field is the boundary between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere. Electric currents flow along the boundary. Because the density and velocity of the solar wind varies continuously, the currents are constantly changing. Furthermore, whatever configurations of magnetic fields, plasma regimes, and electric currents that were established to maintain the pressure balance are constantly ‘buffeted’ and changing, often explosively. All of these processes involve electric currents having magnetic effects felt on the ground as geomagnetic ‘activity’. (Dr. L. Svalgaard, Stanford University).
More details here:

June 17, 2019 12:39 am

The aurora looks way different looking down from space than it does looking up from the surface. I was surprised. Auroras are a result of Earth’s magnetic field so I had imagined that their spatial pattern would be something like what you get with iron filings on a piece of paper above a bar magnet.

June 17, 2019 3:53 am

” In the late 1800s scientists experimented with electric phenomena in glass containers from which most of the air had been pumped out, and produced there beams of what seemed to be negatively charged particles, later named electrons. When electrons hit an obstacle, they can produce light (television screens and computer monitors operate that way), leading to the idea that perhaps the aurora was produced like that, too, when beams of electrons from outer space entered the atmosphere.

The idea gained support when Kristian Birkeland in Norway, around 1895, aimed an electron beam at a spherical magnet and found it was guided towards the magnetic poles of the sphere. Instrumented rockets and satellites later confirmed the existence of such electron beams in the aurora, measured their energies and even photographed from above the world-wide distribution of aurora. But we are still learning about how this happens and where the aurora’s energy comes from.”

Pop Piasa
June 17, 2019 6:55 am

The IMF Bz has been largely pointing south for the past few days. The “cracks in the magnetosphere” (as describes it) allow solar wind to pour in and power the enhanced atmospheric reactions.

June 17, 2019 7:00 am

What’s interesting and maybe alittle concerning for the occupants when the aurora is viewed from above is that the solar plasma causing it is streaming right into the ISS. Not sure how much gets thru the walls…..

Reply to  beng135
June 17, 2019 8:19 am

If the solar plasma is electrons (Beta particles) or Alpha particles (protons & neutrons) then the amount that enters the ISS is virtually none as both are blocked by the metallic pressure hull. Some level of EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) and radiation shielding are requirements imposed upon the designs.
Deep space radiation (Gamma rays) and coronal mass ejections (CMEs)are another matter entirely and the ISS is not sufficiently hardened in all but a few zones.

June 17, 2019 8:33 am

Awesome image! Because I am a gravity-challenged, right-side-up person, it looks much better to my sensibilities if it is rotated 180 degrees (even if it is the South Pole).

Reply to  observer
June 17, 2019 9:48 am

Interesting observation regarding orientation in a gravitational field. Much of our understanding and knowledge is based upon our “innate frame of reference” biased by our evolution. On Earth we need “sign conventions” (which way is positive and which is negative, up/down, etc.) for communication otherwise our directions may be misinterpreted by 180°. In space there is no up or down and navigation is controlled by positional measurements from ‘relatively’ stable objects (stars).
Because of our limited ‘innate cognition’ most humans also have limited comprehension of very large and very small frames of reference, and another (indicated by the climate hysteria) regarding the inability to comprehend extremely long time spans.

Ronald Mazurkiewicz
June 17, 2019 8:46 am

I wonder if the energy input from the solar plasma flow is enough to influence weather and climate? If so, could changes in the intensity have contributed to climate change?

Reply to  Ronald Mazurkiewicz
June 17, 2019 12:37 pm

The required energy is already available in the weather systems, it is the secondary effect of massive solar/geomagnetic storms on the polar vortex that affects the N. Hemisphere’s weather systems. In the summer time when sun is pumping energy into polar regions solar storms have little or no effect, however situation changes dramatically in the winter months. If we look at the 360 CET year long record picture tells the story.
As you can see all of the warming is due to the winter months.
The polar vortex extends from the tropopause at 8–11 km in altitude, to the stratopause at around 50–60 km in altitude.
During strong solar activity passenger jets avoid flying polar route, since the Earth magnetic field funnels charge particles towards magnetic poles. The charge particles strongly ionise atmospheric gasses in the vortex. Atmospheric velocity of polar vortex is well in excess of 100km/h and often 2 or 3x that.
Noting that the atmosphere of the polar vortex is ionised, basic laws of physics stipulate that movement of such gasses is under influence of the magnetic field present.
Downward cascade of charged particles strongly ionises polar vortex, and this state may persist for few weeks or even a month or so.
When the charge is low the effect of earth’s field on the vortex is weak, the vortex is strong with jet stream (please note polar vortex and polar jet stream are two related but different physical processes) more regular mainly restricted to high latitudes.
With high charge the vortex is pulled away by the concentration of intensity in the earth’s MF, eventually splitting it up into two distinct but much weaker entities.
as in this type of often seen image:
or movie:
Electrically charged polar vortex in the Northern Hemisphere is progressively spread out and weaken by effect of split magnetic field and eventually it is itself split after number of days or couple of weeks.
There is a strong relationship between polar vortex and polar jet stream.
When the polar vortex is strong, there is a single vortex with a jet stream that is “well constrained” near the polar front. When the northern vortex weakens, it separates into two vortices above Canada and Siberia in contrast the Antarctic vortex of the Southern Hemisphere is a single low pressure zone.
When the polar vortex is strong, the mid-latitude Westerlies (winds at the surface level between 30° and 60° latitude from the west) increase in strength and are persistent. When the polar vortex is weak, high pressure zones of the mid latitudes may push poleward, moving the jet stream, and polar weather front south-ward. The jet stream is seen to “buckle” and deviate south. This rapidly brings cold dry air into contact with the warm, moist air of the mid latitudes, resulting in a rapid and dramatic change of weather known as a “cold snap”.

Steven Lohr
Reply to  vukcevic
June 18, 2019 11:20 am

I am wondering about the description of the winter with rapidly moving charged air at the pole. What happens to molecules of gas like oxygen and nitrogen when these charges are physically ripping about in the atmosphere. Does this change them to either form or diminish ozone, for instance?

June 17, 2019 9:52 am

Jmorpuss said;
“we are still learning about how this happens and where the aurora’s energy comes from.”

Mass from the sun’s solar wind, Solar flares and intergalactic gas clouds from the Local fluff appears to be the source. Hydrogen and helium doesn’t have much mass and bounces off our magnetic envelope. But other compounds like methane and ammonia etc. thrown off the sun’s interior burn brightly when it comes in contact with the mono oxygen and nitrogen of the upper atmosphere and changes colors as it burns its way through to the nitrous oxide / O-Zone layer and then to normal oxygen.
You can tell what the gases are made of by spectrograph or the Bunston burner test of comparing colors. Methane flame on your stove is hard to see, can you imagine how many billions of tons must be burning in our atmosphere to be seen from 50 miles away? No wonder our ocean levels rise between five to 10 inches per century.
I remember the perfect storm of 2014? When a slow moving flare was taken over by X class flare creating wonderful auroras all over the world. They called it the perfect storm, and a few days later they registered over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide for the first time in the arctic! Carbon from outer space.

My favorite pictures from space is showing the scattering of ionizing radiation on our atmosphere creating a blue world, followed by the sun descending and the sky turning “green” as the nitrous oxide and O-Zone react together forming regular oxygen and nitrogen. O-Zone depletion occurs every night to be replenished the next day. How ironic, O-Zone is the most abundant O-Zone depleting chemical.

Reply to  Max
June 18, 2019 12:58 am

Here’s a bit more on Ozone formation

Here’s why the sky is blue.

Why is electricity blue?
BY HOW IT WORKS TEAM · 13/03/2012

Photo courtesy of Emperor Palpatine

Electricity only looks blue because we usually see electrical energy as it passes through air. Electrons in each air atom gain energy from the electricity and jump to a more excited state. As the electrons return to their original energy level they release a photon of light. In air this photon appears blue but other gases would produce different colours. For example, the gases argon, phosphor, mercury and neon are used in this way to make the various colours in ‘neon’ lights.

Answered by Kate Mulcahy, Science Museum

June 17, 2019 4:02 pm

“Presenting these findings at this week’s Swarm Science Meeting in Canada, scientists from the University of Calgary explained how they used measurements from the trio of Swarm satellites to build on what was known about vast sheets of electric current in the upper atmosphere.

The theory that there are huge electric currents, powered by solar wind and guided through the ionosphere by Earth’s magnetic field, was postulated more than a century ago by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after the advent of satellites, however, that these ‘Birkeland currents’ were confirmed by direct measurements in space.

These currents carry up to 1 TW of electric power to the upper atmosphere – about 30 times the energy consumed in New York during a heatwave.”

As Walter Lewin said in one of his 8.02 lectures ” If it wasn’t for electricity , we wouldn’t be here.” All hale the ELECTRON for giving us life . If you look at the periodic table , each element would not exist if not for the electron cloud holding it together. How big is the electron cloud that holds Earth together ?

June 18, 2019 12:17 am

If you look at the periodic table , each element would not exist if not for the electron cloud holding it together. How big is the electron cloud that holds Earth together ?
What is electricity ?

Mark - Helsinki
June 18, 2019 3:40 am

question, why only now is there a pic of this from the station after all this time?

Very strange

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