Monday’s Aurora From Orbit; Space Station Welcomes A Dragon

Satellite view of the aurora on October 8, 2012 stretching across Canada’s Quebec and Ontario Provinces. It was also visible from the northern U.S. that morning. Click for a large, hi-res version. Credit: NASA/NOAA/DoD

How about this cool satellite photo taken of Monday morning’s aurora? The Earth-observing research satellite called Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP)  snapped this view of the aurora borealis from 512 miles up early on the morning of October 8, 2012.

The northern auroral oval is centered on the north geomagnetic pole currently located in northern Canada. Credit: NASA

Stretching across Canada, the aurora there would have created a brilliant overhead display. Further south in the northern U.S., lucky sky watchers who got up early saw the same aurora as tall rays unfurling across the northern sky. The loopy curls you see in the photo are a small fraction of a much larger ring-shaped structure called the auroral oval.

Auroras form in two large rings centered on Earth’s geomagnetic poles which are not lined up with the geographic north and south poles. At present the north geomagnetic pole is located in far northern Canada. When we see auroras in the northern hemisphere, they’re also active to the same degree in the southern hemisphere. New Zealanders see their version of the northern lights called the aurora australis or southern lights.

Auroras don’t have to directly overhead to be visible. Since they form 60 to 250 miles up, the fact that they “stand so tall” lets us see them hundreds of miles to the south.

Earth’s magnetic field, generated by its outer iron core, creates invisible lines of magnetic force that concentrate at the poles. This “magnetic field” shields the planet from much of the sun’s particle blasts and makes our compass needles point north. A bar magnet (right) generates a similar field concentrated at its poles. Particles from the sun (or near Earth) follow the field lines into the upper atmosphere to create the auroral ovals. Credit: NASA

Geomagnetic storms, sparked by material blasted from the sun either from solar storms called flares or “quieter” coronal holes, pushes on our planet’s magnetic bubble or magnetosphere. sending cascades of particles along lines of magnetic force straight into the polar atmosphere. There they excite molecules of oxygen and nitrogen to glow green, pink, purple and red as aurora.

The Dragon ship, NASA’s first privately-contracted cargo delivery flight, docks this morning at the ISS. It carries 882 pounds of crew supplies, science research and hardware. Astronauts will reload it with 1,673 pounds of cargo for return to Earth. Credit: NASA-TV

This morning at 8:03 a.m. (CDT) Commander Suni Williams aboard the International Space Station (ISS) used robotic Canadarm 2 to grab and install the Dragon cargo ship to its docking port.

I had hoped we’d be able to watch the ship approach the station, but good evening passes for many U.S. observers don’t begin until this evening. Dragon will remain at the space station for 18 days. On October 28, astronauts will detach it and direct it earthward for a splashdown 6 hours later in the Pacific Ocean. Since viewing opportunities are good through the end of the month, some of us will be able to watch its departure.

Below are viewing times for the International Space Station for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for other cities, please go to Spaceweather satellite flybys site or log in to Heavens Above. The ISS will look like the brightest “star” in the evening sky as it travels from west to east. And before I forget, that shiny object photographed by Curiosity on Mars earlier this week appears to be a piece of plastic that somehow got loose from the rover.

* Weds. evening Oct. 10 starting at 7:25 p.m. low across the south-southeast.
* Thurs. Oct. 11 at 8:11 p.m. A short pass in the southwest-south before disappearing in Earth’s shadow.
* Fri. Oct. 12 at 7:22 p.m. Nice pass across the southern sky.
* Sat. Oct. 13 at 8:09 p.m. Comes up from the southwest and rises all the way up to the zenith before fading away in Earth’s shadow.
* Sun. Oct. 14 at 8:20 p.m. Nice high and bright pass across the top of the sky.
* Mon. Oct. 15 at 8:08 p.m. across the north. Enters Earth’s shadow and fades away just east of the North Star.


22 Responses

      1. VXIII

        Thank you, it has nothing to do with the topic but the speed of light, if light travels 186k per second and we see galaxies that are for example 3000 light years away, wouldn’t that mean that what we are looking at is how it was 3000 years ago and not like it is today? Could it be that those galaxies do not exist anymore and are only a reflection of maybe our own galaxy in the past? I know its probably a dumb question but if you don’t know the answer it is not. I also am interested in astronomy but cannot see but a few stars where I live due to all the damn lights. Where should I start if I want to learn more? Its just not the same viewing pics on a computer or book. Ill probably have many more stupid questions for you. 1. Is it true that Jupiter is only visible to the earth every 33 years?

        1. astrobob

          You’re right. We do see them as they were years ago, however since most stars and especially galaxies have lifetimes measured in billions of years, a distance or 3,000 light years (or even 3 million light years) is a drop in the bucket in terms of their lifetimes. Essentially they appear the same now as they are if you could see them up close in real time.
          Jupiter is visible from Earth every year for many months at a time. Not sure where you got that number but it is incorrect. Right now the planet is too near the sun to see but will pop back out in the morning sky late next month.

      1. VXIII

        Not really, Orion, Gemini and Taurus coming up in the west, Cassiopia in the North, Leo and virgo kind of in the upper south. That’s about it. Ill find a map and figure it out but I need to go someplace where its dark and not just dots on a piece of paper, I was in Oregon once and saw the night sky all of it and it amazed me that there were so many stars out there that I had never seen. Ever since Ive wanted to know more.

        1. astrobob

          Sounds like you’re familiar enough to visualize the ecliptic. It passes right next to Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, then glides down and east a short distance above Spica, Virgo’s brightest star. To the left of Spica is Saturn which is almost directly on the ecliptic. Next stop is Antares, brightest star in Scorpius down in the southeast. The ecliptic passes a short distance above it.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Eve,
      I looked it up some time back, so no, I can’t remember the original page. Are you turning anything up on a search?

  1. Duncan

    Your “auroral oval” photo does not appear to come from NASA, and does not appear very realistic. Do you know who the artist/original source was?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Duncan,
      I like it because it’s a straightforward, easy-to-understand illustration of the oval. As with most illustrations, it’s realistic to a point. I pulled it a long time ago and believe it came from a NASA video on the topic.

      1. Corinne

        Did you not say,
        ” How about this cool satellite photo taken of Monday morning’s aurora? The Earth-observing research satellite called Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) snapped this view of the aurora borealis from 512 miles up early on the morning of October 8, 2012.”
        I looked for it at NASA and it was not there.

  2. janjamm

    I think it would be good to note that the second picture is an illustration. I spent the morning trying to track down the origins of the image. It is posted in many places as if it was taken from ISS, but it is too far from the earth to be the ISS. It may represent where the auroras can appear, but I don’t think any scientist believes that they form a complete circle. The photo misrepresents facts and should be captioned as an illustration.

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