In early November 2023, people in North America and Europe witnessed a spectacular display of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, captured by the VIIRS sensor on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite. The image shows colorful ribbons of light over western Canada during a strong geomagnetic storm in Earth’s magnetosphere. The aurora was so intense near Edmonton, Canada, that it nearly saturated the satellite sensor. This celestial event continued into the following night, enchanting the skies over Glasgow, Montana, with pink and green lights. The brilliance of the aurora was most pronounced near the U.S.-Canada border and in Alaska but was faintly visible as far south as Texas.
The formation of an aurora typically begins when the Sun releases charged particles, either through solar flares, coronal mass ejections, or an active solar wind, towards Earth. These solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetosphere, compressing it and altering the configuration of the planet’s magnetic field. Some trapped particles are then accelerated into the upper atmosphere, where they excite nitrogen and oxygen molecules, producing the mesmerizing phenomenon known as the aurora.
The specific aurora on November 5–6 resulted from multiple coronal mass ejections, substantial expulsions of magnetized plasma from the Sun’s corona, as reported by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. These plasma bursts and energetic waves collided with Earth’s upper atmosphere, inducing a powerful geomagnetic storm and illuminating the night sky with breathtaking displays of the northern lights.
The aurora was photographed by astronauts on October 28, 2023, orbiting 260 miles above Utah.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured a stunning photo of an aurora while orbiting 260 miles above Utah on October 28, 2023, a week before a geomagnetic storm. This particular aurora was likely triggered by a coronal hole on the Sun that rotated towards Earth. Coronal holes are cooler areas in the solar atmosphere, open to interplanetary space, emitting material in high-speed streams.
If you enjoy observing auroras, you can actively contribute to aurora citizen science through the Aurorasaurus project. This initiative tracks global aurora sightings reported on its website and social media, generating a real-time map. Citizen scientists validate these reports, providing valuable data points for researchers to analyze and incorporate into space weather models. Supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA, Aurorasaurus is a public-private partnership with the New Mexico Consortium.
The captivating astronaut photograph was taken with a Nikon D5 digital camera using a 24-millimeter lens and was provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit at Johnson Space Center. The image, part of the Expedition 70 crew’s contributions, has been cropped, enhanced for contrast, and had lens artifacts removed. The International Space Station Program supports the ISS National Lab in capturing Earth images for scientific and public benefit, making them freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be explored at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. The story was authored by Emily Cassidy.