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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Soaring: Lights Over Norway

By Phil Plait

For years, I thought that aurorae—the northern and southern lights—were pretty stately phenomena. Sure, there were sheets and ribbons colored green and red and pink and purple, so it was clearly a flamboyant and amazing display.

But having seen so many static pictures, and then time-lapse videos, I got the impression that aurorae didn’t change rapidly. The motion was there, but slow. Then, earlier this year, I saw a video that showed the aurorae moving in real time, and I was shocked. It was amazing. They flicker and dance, sometimes moving quite rapidly.

Still, it’s rare to get the lights moving that way. They normally are relatively slow. But photographer Ole C. Salomonsen was lucky: In Tromsø, Norway, between August and November, he caught many such rapid displays using a really nice Sony A7s camera, and the results are simply spectacular. See for yourself:

Wasn’t that incredible? At the 3:30 mark I literally gasped as he tilts the camera up to see a corona, cascading colors like dripping ink.

Aurorae are caused by fast subatomic particles from the Sun when they’re channeled down into Earth’s atmosphere by our planet’s magnetic field. This can form long sheets of light as the particles scream down like bullets and excite the molecules in the air, causing them to glow. From a distance, these sheets look like streamers and ribbons, but if you’re underneath them you’re looking directly up into a 3-D phenomenon, like lying on the floor and looking up into curtains billowed by the wind. That's the corona.

On top of that, that part of the video shows bursts of color not usually seen, like pink, as nitrogen glows blue and oxygen and nitrogen glows red; combined they make the astonishing vivid pink.

Tromsø is a bit of a haul from Colorado, but Iceland is a lot closer, and has a lot of other science going on, too. I have my eye on that island and would love to make that trip soon. I’ve still never seen an aurora, but I’m aiming to fix that. Videos like this only make me more determined.

Tip o’ the Birkeland current to John Markus Bjørndalen.

Correction, Dec. 7, 2014: I originally misspelled the name of the town of Tromsø. Also, the wrong video was embedded in the post initially.

Update, Dec. 7, 2014: Also, the wrong video was embedded in the post initially. It's been swapped out for the correct one.

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