Astronaut snaps 'spectacular' pictures of aurora from the ISS

Astronaut snaps spectacular pictures of aurora from the International Space Station as ‘cannibal’ ejection from the sun triggers geomagnetic storms on Earth

  • Spectacular images of aurora have been captured by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station
  • The sight was caused by a ‘cannibal’ ejection from the sun, which triggered geomagnetic storms on Earth
  • NASA astronaut Bob Hines took images of distant aurora from Cupola, a seven-window observatory on ISS
  • He tweeted: ‘SPECTACULAR aurora! Thankful for the recent solar activity resulting in these wonderful sights!’

Spectacular images of the Northern Lights have been captured by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.

They show the aftermath of a ‘cannibal’ ejection from the sun, which triggered geomagnetic storms on Earth.

NASA astronaut Bob Hines, who arrived at the ISS as part of the SpaceX Crew-4 mission in April, snapped the amazing images.

‘Absolutely SPECTACULAR aurora today!!!’ he tweeted. ‘Thankful for the recent solar activity resulting in these wonderful sights!’

He took the pictures from the Cupola — a seven-window observatory which offers the best spot for taking in the stunning views of the Earth.

Auroras occur when particles from incoming solar storms strike gases in our planet’s atmosphere, with the collision often leading to these eye-catching displays. 

Cracking view: Spectacular images of the Northern Lights have been captured by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station

They show the aftermath of a ‘cannibal’ ejection from the sun, which triggered geomagnetic storms on Earth (pictured)

While astronauts on the space station do get a unique view of the phenomenon, the natural wonder can also be witnessed from the ground, with the best vantage points in places in the far north like Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. 

On the other side of the planet, in the far south, places such as Tasmania and New Zealand offer the best view of an aurora.

The ‘cannibal’ ejection of energetic and highly magnetised, superheated gas barrelled toward Earth yesterday (Thursday).

This stream, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), shot out of sunspot AR3078 on Monday and then gobbled up a previous ejection that was released the previous day, deeming it a cannibal. 

It created a ‘mish mash of the two’ with tangled magnetic fields and compressed plasma (highly ionised gas), which are known to cause strong geomagnetic storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) experts said they were expecting G1- (minor) to G2-class (moderate) geomagnetic storms, which they said could produce auroras as far south as New York and Idaho. 

NASA astronaut Bob Hines snapped the amazing images of a distant aurora. ‘Absolutely SPECTACULAR aurora today!!!’ he tweeted

Hines, who arrived at the ISS as part of the SpaceX Crew-4 mission in April, took the images from the Cupola. This is a seven-window observatory which offers the best spot for taking in the stunning views of Earth

WHAT ARE THE CATEGORIES OF SOLAR STORMS AND WHAT ARE THEIR EFFECTS?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) uses its space weather scales to categorise solar storms.

They were introduced as a way to communicate to the general public the current and future space weather conditions and their possible effects on people and systems. 

The scales describe the environmental disturbances for three event types: geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts. 

The scales have numbered levels, analogous to hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes that convey severity. 

G5 – Extreme 

Power systems: Widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur. Some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage.

Spacecraft operations: May experience extensive surface charging, problems with orientation, uplink/downlink and tracking satellites.

Other systems: Pipeline currents can reach hundreds of amps, high frequency radio propagation may be impossible in many areas for one to two days, satellite navigation may be degraded for days, low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours, and aurora has been seen as low as Florida and southern Texas (typically 40° geomagnetic latitude).

G4 – Severe 

Power systems: Possible widespread voltage control problems and some protective systems will mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid.

Spacecraft operations: May experience surface charging and tracking problems, corrections may be needed for orientation problems.

Other systems: Induced pipeline currents affect preventive measures, HF radio propagation sporadic, satellite navigation degraded for hours, low-frequency radio navigation disrupted, and aurora has been seen as low as Alabama and northern California (typically 45° geomagnetic latitude).

G3 – Strong

Power systems: Voltage corrections may be required, false alarms triggered on some protection devices.

Spacecraft operations: Surface charging may occur on satellite components, drag may increase on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and corrections may be needed for orientation problems.

Other systems: Intermittent satellite navigation and low-frequency radio navigation problems may occur, HF radio may be intermittent, and aurora has been seen as low as Illinois and Oregon (typically 50°geomagnetic latitude).

G2 – Moderate

Power systems: High-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms, long-duration storms may cause transformer damage.

Spacecraft operations: Corrective actions to orientation may be required by ground control; possible changes in drag affect orbit predictions.

Other systems: HF radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes, and aurora has been seen as low as New York and Idaho (typically 55° geomagnetic latitude).

G1 – Minor

Power systems: Weak power grid fluctuations can occur.

Spacecraft operations: Minor impact on satellite operations possible.

Other systems: Migratory animals are affected at this and higher levels; aurora is commonly visible at high latitudes (northern Michigan and Maine).

CMEs can eject billions of tons of corona material from the sun’s surface. The material consists of plasma and magnetic field. 

Such eruptions have the potential to trigger space weather that can interfere with satellites and power grids on Earth, and can be harmful to unprotected astronauts. 

This week’s CMEs came from one of five sunspots currently located on the sun’s surface, which are dark regions that are cooler than other parts.

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) captured a M5 solar flare from AR3078 at around 5:30 am ET Tuesday that was associated with a temporary moderate-strength radio blackout over parts of the Middle East and East Africa. 

Last month, on July 19, auroras were witnessed after a solar storm hit Earth, producing electric greens and purples across the northern US and Canada.

Auroras occur when particles from incoming solar storms strike gases in our planet’s atmosphere, with the collision often resulting in these gorgeous displays. Hines is pictured

‘Absolutely SPECTACULAR aurora today!!!’ he tweeted. ‘Thankful for the recent solar activity resulting in these wonderful sights!’

Shortly after, on August 3, there was another solar storm warning.

There was also a C9.3 flare that shot out of the sun that Sunday, but it did not erupt on the sun’s side facing Earth.

It did, however, cause enough commotion to be captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory – a craft that has been investigating our massive star since launching in 2010. 

The recent increase in activity from the Sun is the result of it coming towards the most active phase in its 11-year solar cycle — hitting peak activity in 2024.

Studies have shown that the level of solar activity currently happening, is about the same as it was 11 years ago, during the same point in the last cycle.

WHAT ARE AURORAS AND WHAT TRIGGERS THE STUNNING NATURAL DISPLAYS?

The Northern and Southern Lights are natural light spectacles triggered in our atmosphere that are also known as the ‘Auroras’.

There are two types of Aurora – Aurora Borealis, which means ‘dawn of the north’, and Aurora Australis, ‘dawn of the south.’

The displays light up when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere. 

There are two types of Aurora – Aurora Borealis (file photo), which means ‘dawn of the north’, and Aurora Australis, ‘dawn of the south.’ The displays light up when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere

Usually the particles, sometimes referred to as a solar storm, are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field.

But during stronger storms they enter the atmosphere and collide with gas particles, including hydrogen and helium.

These collisions emit light. Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are common.

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