Night Sights Out An Airplane Window

Night Time Lapse of Stars Out an Airplane Window – Michael Rautio

It used to be easy to get a window seat in an airplane back in the day when it didn’t cost extra or you had to reserve it months in advance. Still, whenever I fly, I try to get my portal on the world from 39,000 feet. During longer flights, the plane will fly above most clouds, where the sky is always clear. At night, the captain will often dim the cabin lights, allowing the passengers to either rest or study the twinkling lights, both terrestrial and celestial, that beckon beyond the windows.

At 39,000 feet, you’re above nearly all the familiar clouds we see by day and night. Without the haze and humidity present at lower altitudes, the stars shine a little more brightly. Credit: Michael Rautio

I take in the luminous gridwork of cities below, sometimes smudged by low clouds passing by, or look straight out and above to see what characters are accompanying me on my journey: the familiar and sometimes unfamiliar stars, planets, moonlight on clouds below and even the aurora borealis.

Michael Rautio used a Nikon still camera to record this wonderful view out his airplane window during a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles on Sept. 11 last year. He fixed the camera to the window and shot 20-second-long time exposures at ISO 4000 over the 6-hour duration of the journey, then compiled it into a time-lapse video.

The flight path is northeast with Michael sitting on the right or “south” side of the plane, so his view is to the southeast-east. If you look early on way off to the middle right of the video, you’ll see an elongated hazy patch. That’s the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way only visible in the southern hemisphere. As the plane travels, fresh constellations sprout out of the east (left side) and rise to fill the frame.

Orion, Sirius and Lepus make an appearance near the end of Michael Rautio’s video. Credit: Michael Rautio

The moon was in waxing gibbous phase at the time and dramatically lights the clouds below until it finally sets and the sky darkens. Near the end of the movie, the familiar three stars of Orion and Sirius make an appearance. But there’s something else. Look closely when the sky gets dark and you’ll see that in the black, light-pollution free sky over the vast Pacific Ocean, quavering bands of pale red and green appear near the bottom of the frame. This is airglow.

Airglow extends around the planet from equator to poles; it’s created by oxygen atoms that reside about 60 miles high — the same altitude as the aurora — get energized by ultraviolet light from the sun during the daytime hours. After sunset, the atoms “relax” back to their original state and release that energy as subtle green and red light. Airglow also occurs when sunlight breaks apart nitrogen molecules; when the nitrogens combine with oxygen, light is released.

These are just a few things I noticed in Michael’s time-lapse. If you see other interesting things, please share it with us in the comments link. And thank you Michael for sharing it with us.

The Earth’s shadow cast on the atmosphere looks like a dark blue-purple band along the horizon. Above it glows the pale orange ‘Belt of Venus’ created by sunset light reflecting off the atmosphere. Anti-crepuscular rays (shadows cast by clouds in the direction of the sun) are also seen. The shadow is much darker then when viewed at ground level. Credit: Bob King

The scene is always illuminating when you’re peering out an airplane window at altitudes that make Everest seem ordinary. On long flights especially if you live in the northern hemisphere and you’re traveling south (or southern hemisphere and traveling north), you can watch brand new stars pop up over the horizon as the miles click by. What a way to get an astronomical education. It might even make waiting in those long lines a bit more bearable.