Stunning Picture of a Pink Aurora Over Crater Lake

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June 1 2013 1:07 PM

Stunning Pink Aurora Over Crater Lake

Sometimes, the Sun surprises us. Late last night (May 31, 2013), a minor but unexpected magnetic storm from the Sun reached Earth. These usually occur after a decent-sized solar flare or coronal mass ejection, but neither was seen before hand. The event wasn’t big enough to cause any major mishaps (like power outages), but it was powerful enough to create auroral displays across the northern United States.

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!  

Brad Goldpaint, whose beautiful photos have been featured here on the blog many times in the past (see Related Posts below), happened to be at Crater Lake last night photographing the Milky Way, when the sky erupted. He got some incredible shots of it, including this one:

Aurora over Crater Lake
A pink aurora shines over Crater Lake, an ancient volcanic caldera in Oregon.

Photo by Brad Goldpaint, used by permission

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Yegads! Aurorae (or the northern/southern lights) are due to atoms and molecules of gas in our atmosphere glowing after getting whacked by the onslaught of subatomic particles from the Sun after a solar storm. They’re commonly green and red, but pink coloring is more rare. That’s due to nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere, and is generally weaker than the more dominant green and red. [Note: in the photo you can see the Andromeda Galaxy off to the right, and the wonderful Double Cluster in the middle.]

The lights were seen as far south as Salt Lake City; on Twitter, Michael Ross sent me a picture he took from there that also clearly shows the pink aurorae. That’s about the same latitude as Boulder! As it happens, it was cloudy last night when I poked my head out the window. Oh well.

So my record is still unbroken: I’ve never clearly seen an aurora (many years ago I saw a faint dull red patch near the northern horizon when I lived in Maryland; there was a strong aurora that night farther north, but I’ve never been able to confirm that’s what I saw). So I’m not at all jealous that Brad has not only seen many aurorae, but plenty of pink ones, too! Pink is one of my favorite colors—purple is my absolute favorite, and is also seen sometimes with pink lights—so maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be favored to witness such a thing in the sky.

If it’s clear tonight, I’ll take a look. You should too. That’s always good advice: Look up! You never know what you might see.

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