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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Aurorae Out an Airplane Window

By Phil Plait

It’s fun to look out an airplane window at night and try to identify stars above and cities below. But I’ve never had as good a view as this:

That time-lapse video is by Paul Williams, a systems designer based in London. He flies to San Francisco many times a year, and the shortest route takes him over northern Canada (it may not seem like it should at first, but check out the geometry of great circles; this may help too). Armed with a Canon 6D and a small, flexible tripod he can attach to his backpack, he took 1,200 photos out the window to create that animation.

He’s done this many times, and I’ve written about his work before. I like this video, too, since it shows a reddish/purple tinge to the light, caused by nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere getting slammed by subatomic particles from the Sun.

And because why not, here's some footage from "skydivephil" showing the aurorae from Iceland ... in real time. It's amazing how quickly they can move. Make sure watch to the very end for a surprise (which was shot in Lapland).

I have a page with tons of links all about what causes aurorae, why they get the colors they do, and more. Lots of fun science there. And of course, watch more of Williams’ videos and check out his Flickr page, too. The aurora season is far from over, so there may be more lights in the sky to come.

And if you’re on a night flight, grab a window seat. Who knows what you’ll see?

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