From Earth, the lights of the aurora are a stunning spectacle, but a video shared earlier this week by a NASA astronaut gives a new perspective on this breathtaking phenomenon.
“People have asked me what a ‘burrito of awesomeness smothered in awesome sauce’ is,” Jack Fischer wrote on Twitter from the International Space Station Sunday. “Well folks, it looks like this … awesome sauce is green.”
The roughly one-minute-long video shows a perspective on the Southern Lights from roughly 250 miles above the atmosphere as the ISS orbited over the South Pole late last month, reports Kasandra Brabaw for Space.com.
People have asked me what a “burrito of awesomeness smothered in awesome sauce” is... Well folks, it looks like this…awesome sauce is green. pic.twitter.com/rgTgbdb84f— Jack Fischer (@Astro2fish) July 23, 2017
The Northern and Southern lights, called Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis respectively, form because of charged particles that stream from the Sun in so-called solar wind. Most of these particles are deflected by Earth's magnetic field, which envelops our planet and flows into and out of the poles. But not all are shoved away. Some of these particles are sucked in, whisked along the magnetic field lines toward the poles where they eventually collide with the gasses of Earth's atmosphere. The impact briefly energizes the gaseous molecules before it's released in the form of colorful light.
The term "aurora borealis" dates back to Galileo Galilei, who coined it to connect these phenomenon to Aurora, the Roman goddess of the morning. However, descriptions of these events in the northern hemisphere date back millennia. Written records are more scarce in the southern hemisphere, but a vivid description of the Aurora Australis from at 17th-century Chilean priest depicts "two armies arrayed in the air" in a celestial battle taking place each night for months.
Auroras aren't restricted to Earth—any planet or celestial body with a magnetic field is theoretically able to have them, and they've been observed elsewhere in our Solar System, ranging from rocky planets like Mars to gas giants like Jupiter and Uranus.
But you don't need to travel into space to get a new perspective on the beauty of an aurora. Earlier this year, a New Zealand museum organized a charter flight to the Antarctic Circle to give passengers an up close view of the Aurora Australis, while an Icelandic photographer used a drone to capture the spectacle of the Aurora Borealis. Scientists have even been able to recreate auroras on (much) smaller scales using small magnetic spheres in vacuum chambers.
And if you do manage to capture your own peek of an aurora, you can help scientists improve how they forecast these atmospheric events. Through the project Aurorasaurus, scientists from NASA and elsewhere are crowdsourcing data from average people to see how solar wind affects the Earth.
Keep looking up to catch the awesome sauce.