Did you ever wonder what it would look like to fly through the aurora? Wonder no more.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) recently got to see an event that few humans have ever witnessed. On August 24th, the European Space Agency (ESA) released this breathtaking video of the ISS as it zipped across the sky, flying high above our pale blue dot. As the station traversed one section of the sky, just above our equator (about 0:12 seconds into the video), it flew through an aurora. Of course, such events are not atypical; the aurora is a common feature on our planet. Yet, the ISS rarely travels directly through an aurora. This is because the station generally stays close to the equator and aurora are often only found at the poles. However, increased solar activity has caused the lights to travel closer to the middle of the planet, where the ISS orbits.
We have covered many timelapse videos of aurora taken from the ISS. Of course, each one is unique, as particle interactions high in the atmosphere cause different patterns to emerge and dance across the sky. Yet, this one is particularly unique, due to the extreme proximity.
The aurora occurs as a result of violent activity that is taking place in our sun. Ultimately, aurorae are caused by cataclysmic events called “solar storms.” Solar storms generally occur as a result of variations in the Sun’s magnetic field lines. When these field lines fluctuate, the matter that they contain is released out into the solar system (and by “released,” I mean that it explodes from the Sun in a hellish firestorm). These super-heated particles blast from the Sun at speeds exceeding 600 miles per second (1,000 kms), and they can contain over 200 billion pounds of material (100 billion kilograms). These high energy particles are blown to Earth on solar winds that emanate from our sun.
Once they reach our planet, they interact with Earth’s upper atmosphere and create a bright glow in the sky, which is known as aurora borealis (the northern lights) in the north and the aurora australis (the southern lights) in the south.
The aurora shown in this ESA video was created when a coronal mass ejection collided with Earth last week. The timelapse footage was captured by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst.