You Don’t Want to Miss this Outside-the-Airplane In-Flight Movie

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 9 2013 11:35 AM

An In–Flight Movie Out an Airplane Window

Aurora out an airplane window.

Photo by Paul Williams. Click to enplanckenate.

I’ve posted a lot of lovely and wonderful time-lapse videos of aurorae over the past year or two, but not one quite like this: It was shot out an airplane window!

The photographer, Paul Williams, says on his YouTube page that he was on a flight from London to New York (which swings north across the Atlantic) when he noticed the aurora out his window. He took 770 three-second exposures, for a real-time length of about 38 minutes (I suspect it was actually a bit longer to account for the time between exposures as well). He balanced the camera on a backpack, aimed it out the window, and hoped for the best. I’d say out came out pretty well!


If you’re curious about the red and green colors, I’ve written about them before; they come mostly from molecules and atoms of oxygen as well as nitrogen. The waving sheets are due to fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. Aurorae are caused when subatomic particles sleeting from the Sun are funneled by the Earth’s magnetic field down into our atmosphere, where they excite the electrons in atoms, causing them to glow. Since the particles flow along the magnetic field lines, they act as tracers for the shapes of those lines.

Williams posted some of the stills on Flickr; in one he caught a meteor! That’s cool.

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!  

I fly a bit, and I usually take an aisle seat so I can get up and stretch my legs if I need to. But I’ll sometimes grab a window seat if I know we’ll be seeing something interesting. I’ve watched the Sun take over an hour to set as I’ve flown west, I’ve seen canyons galore, optical effects, the Moon rapidly rising as the airplane’s motion adds to the Earth’s rotation.

But I’ve never seen an aurora. Someday, perhaps, I’ll take a transcontinental flight that’ll take me far north, and that will finally be my chance to glimpse one. With my luck I’ll be on the wrong side of the plane. I’ll have to remember to keep a bribe handy if the opportunity ever does come up.


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