The dancing lights of an aurora can be awe-inspiring down here on Earth, but when seen from the International Space Station they take on a magical quality. Astronaut Alex Gerst describes it as swimming through a living ocean of glow; I'm just happy they send us photographs.
Top image: A green glow flickers across impossibly blue oceans and textured clouds. Gerst muses, "Sometimes it seems like our planet is a living being itself. If it were, what would it tell us?" Credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
A bright full moon scatters moonlight across an ocean of green glowing clouds. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
Auroras happen when our sun throws a tantrum, spitting charged particles out in a coronal mass ejection during a magnetic disturbance. If they're spit where we are, we get hit a few days later. The magnetic field tidily cocooning our planet is a protective beast, flaring up in magnetic storms when provoked by the shower of charged particles.
Moonlight and aurora illuminate a nocturnal sky. Wiseman apologized for the out-of-focus shot; I can forgive a bit of blurring for this view. Image credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
As long as the magnetic storm is small, the only consequence is some lovely views down here on Earth, and outright gorgeous views from high above in the space station. The aurora dance in halos around the magnetic poles, pushed and tweaked by the magnetic field blowing in the solar wind.
Aurora and clouds dapple the planet in glowing green. "This is what we see looking down while being inside an aurora," explains Gerst. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
I'm still mournful I missed out on the epic northern lights last weekend, so clearly I need to torment myself with even more unobtainable views and expand my jealousy beyond residents of northern latitudes to the residents of Low Earth Orbit. Thankfully, our astronauts very dutifully send home photographs and even videos for the rest of us to enjoy.
The Canadarm set against the northern lights. Image credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
I'd say it's hard to be too jealous when we at least get these gorgeous images to admire, but that'd be a lie. I'm awe-struck and inspired by the magic of our planet glowing as just a casual bit of physics out-of-view to so many of the Earth's inhabitants. It's just a totally normal function of the magnetic field of the Earth responding to a not-particularly-unusual outburst from the sun, yet is simultaneously deeply unreal in its beauty.
From nighttime aurora through to the morning light. Video credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
If this were a computer-generated graphic, a special effect for some movie or video game, the director would tell them to knock it down a notch to make it more believable. But this is our real planet, and this is a thing that it does on a regular basis!
A twist of brighter green against an ocean of glow makes me wonder if the dancing lights have a sense of depth and fluidity when seen from above. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
The astronauts punctuated the arrival of the second run of auroras this month with gleeful declarations of their return. I don't wonder why for one second: even the encompassing beauty that is seeing our planet, a spark of water and life against the vast blackness of the unexplored, is elevated to an unearthly, adjective-defying status by those dancing lights.
Gerst captioned this image, "Words can't describe how it feels flying through an aurora. I wouldn't even know where to begin..." Image credit: NASA/ESA/Alex Gerst
At the end of all this, I'm just left wondering: When are those space-tourism flights into orbit starting up again? Do you think they'd charge extra during geomagnetic storms? Would that fee be on par with getting a bit of extra legroom or checking an additional bag, or would the opportunity to see aurora from space be more equivalent to upgrading to business class for a transatlantic flight?
Even a small aurora is beautiful, a hint of magic in an already dramatic view. Image credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
I've said it before, but it's still true: I will never be tired of auroras from space.