ISS Crew Captures Beautiful Image of Green Aurora Over the Indian Ocean

Ian O’Neil in Discovery News:

June 21, 2010 -- This spectacular photograph shows a snaking aurora over the Southern Hemisphere as the International Space Station (ISS) orbits overhead. It occurred during a geomagnetic storm, likely caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) slamming into our planet's magnetosphere.

The ISS was passing over the Southern Indian Ocean at an altitude of 350 kilometers (or 220 miles) meaning this is the “aurora australis” — aurorae that occur near the South Pole. The aurora borealis occurs near the North Pole. The space station astronaut was pointing the camera toward Antarctica at the time.

Aurorae occur when energetic particles from the sun — carried by the solar wind or a solar ejection — flood into the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles (mainly protons) are then funneled into the polar regions, where the magnetic field lines feed into the Earth’s surface. As the particles fall toward the surface they hit atmospheric gasses. When they collide, light is emitted, producing aurorae.

In this case, the aurora is dominated with green light. This means the atmospheric oxygen is glowing under the onslaught of solar particles. The light show is most likely located between 100-300 kilometers (60-190 miles) up, inside the Earth’s ionosphere.

Image: Photograph from the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment (NASA)

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