NASA’s IMAGE satellite captured an amazing light show of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) back in 2005. The event was recorded on September 11, 2005, four days after a solar flare sent an ionized gas of protons and electrons known as plasma towards the earth. The solar storm generated a ring of light observed in the animation. The IMAGE observations were then overlaid onto NASA’s satellite-based Blue Marble image to produce an amazing animation of the event.
Like all solar storms, the September storm distorted the shape of the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth. Without buffeting from the solar wind (charged particles like protons and electrons that are ejected from the Sun), the Earth’s magnetic field would look something like a plump doughnut, with the North and South poles forming the slender hole in the center. In reality, the nearly constant solar winds flatten the space side of the “doughnut” into a long tail. The amount of distortion changes when solar storms, such as the flare on September 7, send stronger winds towards the Earth. Changes to the magnetic field release fast-moving particles, which flow with charged particles from the Sun towards the center of the “doughnut” at the Earth’s poles. As the particles sink into the atmosphere, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen, lighting the sky with Nature’s version of neon lights, the aurora.
Animation of Southern Lights (Aurora Australis)
Download the animation here (5 MB, QuickTime)