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Beautiful blasts from solar storms

Sylvain Serre

Sylvain Serre took this picture of the northern lights on Sept. 3 from the village of Ivujivik in Quebec.

Our planet has managed to dodge the potential ill effects from a string of solar storms over the past couple of weeks ... while still enjoying the wonders.

The region on the sun's disk known as sunspot 1283 has been spouting off with one flare after another, earning it the title of "Old Faithful" among solar physicists. Old Faithful has thrown off several coronal mass ejections, which are outbursts of solar particles that stream through the solar system at speeds of a million miles per hour. If a powerful outburst hits Earth's magnetic field were to hit just wrong, that could cause problems for satellite operations, communication links and electrical grids.

One of the most famous disruptions in recent times was the Hydro-Quebec blackout of 1989, caused by a huge disturbance in space weather. Back in 1859, an even bigger solar storm flashed through daylight skies and set telegraph wires sizzling. Some observers say such an event would blow out civilization's fuses if it happened today, but experts downplay the chances of seeing a solar doomsday anytime soon.

Solar activity is definitely on the upswing toward an expected maximum in 2013, but so far, we haven't seen any direct hits on the magnetosphere. Instead, we're seeing a series of glancing blows that have set off beautiful auroral displays in the upper atmosphere, like the show that photographer Sylvain Serre captured from northern Quebec on Sept. 3.

"For the first time of the season, there was a clear sky in the northern village of Ivujivik (the highest point in Quebec)," Serre wrote in a note to SpaceWeather.com. "So I went outside with a friend to take a little walk and to get more familiar with the landscape around here. Fortunately, the northern lights were very bright, dense and colorful."

For the camera buffs out there, Serre used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 16-35mm lens set at f/2.8 and 4000 ISO, at exposures ranging from 10 to 25 seconds. Check out the SpaceWeather gallery or Serre's website for still more thrilling views of the northern lights.

Ron Garan / NASA via Twitpic

NASA astronaut snapped this picture of an auroral display from the International Space Station and sent it down to Earth via his Twitpic account on Monday.

For a completely different perspective on the aurora, feast your eyes on this view of the southern lights, as seen by NASA astronaut Ron Garan from the International Space Station over the weekend. The space station's Italian-built Leonardo storage module is visible in the foreground.

Garan has had the good fortune to see a wide range of glorious phenomena during his time in orbit — including the Perseid meteor shower, as viewed from above, and an astronaut's-eye view of Atlantis' historic descent to the last-ever space shuttle landing. He's been sharing these and other visual treats via his Twitpic account as well as his Fragile Oasis website.

Garan promises that better pictures of the aurora are "coming soon." But those pictures might have to wait until after he lands back on Earth on Friday aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. "I have thousands of pictures for Twitter when back from space," he wrote on Monday. "You've seen just the tip of the iceberg."

As a parting shot, here's the final installment of Garan's "Cupola Corner" video series with fellow NASA astronaut Mike Fossum:

With the sun rising outside their window, NASA astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum reflect on their 100 shared days on the International Space Station.

More views of auroras and space sights:

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