the earth adorned in a phosphorescent crown of light, as supercharged plasma spewed from the sun smashes into the planet’s magnetosphere, exciting our atmosphere at the poles and generating up to a million megawatts of power in the process. photos by reid weisman and roscosmos from the international space station, which passes over the earth’s poles every ninety minutes.
This is an animation of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), eight days after a record-setting solar flare sent a shower of charged particles towards Earth. From Earth, this glowing ring would appear as a curtain of light shimmering across the night sky.
The Sun goes through cycles of activity every 11 years or so. When it is more active, more sunspots appear on the surface and more charged particles are ejected, while at the other end the sun is quieter, with fewer sunspots and less ejection. Since these charged particles, when they are caught up in Earth’s magnetic field, are what drive outbreaks of the Aurora, the sky tends to light up the most during active periods for the sun and aurora outbreaks are more rare when the sun is less active.
The colorful aurora australis (southern lights) glowing in this image were not captured at an ordinary place. It’s cold, dark and isolated with very little oxygen to breathe in the air, but the unique location makes Concordia station in Antarctica an attractive place for scientists to conduct research. For nine months, no aircraft or land vehicles can reach the station, temperatures drop to –80°C and the Sun does not rise above the horizon for 100 days.
Living and working in these conditions is similar in many ways to living on another planet and ESA (European Space Agency) sponsors a medical doctor to run research for future space missions. Many experiments will be run, including
how these conditions influence blood pressure, connections in the brain and the sensitivity of eyes. There’s also a team looking for bacteria, fungi and viral colonies that could have adapted to the cold: a lot can be learned from organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and mission designers consider using them for purposes in future space travel.
Read about the crew’s life at the end of the world on the Concordia blog. Copyright: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–B. Healey