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Aurora Australis from space February 28, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Meteorology, nature.
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7 comments
Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station.

Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station.

I came across these photos on Wikimedia Commons. They are copyright-free images.  The one above was taken during a geomagnetic storm caused by a “coronal mass ejection from the sun,” May 24, 2010. The description reads:

Auroras happen when ions in the solar wind collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. The atoms are excited by these collisions, and they typically emit light as they return to their original energy level…. Auroras are a spectacular sign that our planet is electrically and magnetically connected to the Sun…. The pressure and magnetic energy of the solar plasma stretches and twists the magnetic field of Earth like rubber bands, particularly in the tail on the night side. This energizes the particles trapped in our magnetic field; that energy is released suddenly as the field lines snap the particles down the field lines toward the north and south magnetic poles. —Captions to photos written by the ISS Expedition 23 crew and Michael Carlowicz.

Southern Lights

Southern Lights

Poets have tried to capture the magic and mystery of the Northern and Southern Lights. It’s one of those topics that’s too dazzling to write about. The helpless poet is reduced to shopworn adjectives of grandiosity that fall far short of the subject. Herman Melville, for instance, wrote a clunker of a poem on the topic even though he was a great writer.

The description quoted from above included few lines from a poem by Robert Service titled “Ballad of the Northern Lights”: And the skies of the night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame; Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came. It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge; Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.

That’s pretty good. The trick to the poem is that it’s about an exhausted, ruined man come back from the Alaska goldfields. He has no gold in his pockets, only the memory of the wavering gold of the Northern Lights. He and his two pals were “the discards of the pack,” and “the gold lust crazed us all.” He tells his story to a stranger as he waits outside a saloon, begging for a handout.

His bitter story gives a bite to his description of the wonders of the sky, and leaves me to think about how gazing at the sky can offer the deepest answers by way of the dazzling realities that dwell just over our heads.

Aurora from space.

Aurora from space.