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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

An In–Flight Movie Out an Airplane Window

By Phil Plait

Iâve posted a lot of lovely and wonderful time-lapse videos of aurorae over the past year or two, but not one quite like this: It was shot out an airplane window!

The photographer, Paul Williams, says on his YouTube page that he was on a flight from London to New York (which swings north across the Atlantic) when he noticed the aurora out his window. He took 770 three-second exposures, for a real-time length of about 38 minutes (I suspect it was actually a bit longer to account for the time between exposures as well). He balanced the camera on a backpack, aimed it out the window, and hoped for the best. Iâd say out came out pretty well!

If youâre curious about the red and green colors, Iâve written about them before; they come mostly from molecules and atoms of oxygen as well as nitrogen. The waving sheets are due to fluctuations in the Earthâs magnetic field. Aurorae are caused when subatomic particles sleeting from the Sun are funneled by the Earthâs magnetic field down into our atmosphere, where they excite the electrons in atoms, causing them to glow. Since the particles flow along the magnetic field lines, they act as tracers for the shapes of those lines.

Williams posted some of the stills on Flickr; in one he caught a meteor! Thatâs cool.

I fly a bit, and I usually take an aisle seat so I can get up and stretch my legs if I need to. But Iâll sometimes grab a window seat if I know weâll be seeing something interesting. Iâve watched the Sun take over an hour to set as Iâve flown west, Iâve seen canyons galore, optical effects, the Moon rapidly rising as the airplaneâs motion adds to the Earthâs rotation.

But Iâve never seen an aurora. Someday, perhaps, Iâll take a transcontinental flight thatâll take me far north, and that will finally be my chance to glimpse one. With my luck Iâll be on the wrong side of the plane. Iâll have to remember to keep a bribe handy if the opportunity ever does come up.

More Aurorae Time-Lapse Videos:

Time-Lapse Video: Aurora Over Sweden

Rippling Noctilucent Clouds Eerily Glow With an Aurora
Time Lapse: Arctic Lightscapes
Without Warning: Time Lapse of a Pink Aurora, With a Bonus
Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse

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