A sun pillar gooses the sky

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 28 2009 7:18 AM

A sun pillar gooses the sky

Regular readers know I'm fascinated with sky phenomena. On December 26, 2009, around 4:30 p.m. local time, I happened to look out my office window and saw a gorgeous beam of orange light shooting straight up into the sky out of the sunset. I rushed outside with my camera and got this shot of it:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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[Click to embiggen.]

Isn't that pretty? I think it's a sun pillar, a vertical column of light caused by the setting sun's light being reflected off of the flat surfaces of hexagonal ice crystals in the air. Given that it was several degrees below freezing when I shot this, ice crystals in the air isn't a totally crazy idea.

However, I can't be sure this isn't just a run-of-the-mill crepuscular ray, just those normal beams of light you see coming from the setting Sun as it's broken up by clouds near the horizon. But it's rare to see a single ray like that, and much rarer to see it beaming straight up like that.

As I was taking this shot, I heard honking coming from the north that I instantly knew was coming from geese. I waited a moment, and then hundreds of geese in formation flew right into the shot! Awesome, and very scenic. I was able to get some pictures, but had to stop down the camera to get the geese, and that introduced noise (the speckly grainy look in digital images) into the sky. I fiddled with the contrast a bit to show the geese, and the picture still looks a little "grainy" but cool:

There were several V-formations of geese this size going by over the course of a minute or two, and during that time the pillar faded, as you can see in this shot. Still, what a sight!

This is the kind of thing you see when you open your eyes and look up. If we could take every human on the planet one at a time, hold their hand, and simply show them this, then I just bet this world would be a better place.

Life is beautiful. You just have to notice it.

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