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Southern exposure for auroral lights


A picture from the International Space Station, provided Saturday by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, shows southern lights between Antarctica and Australia.

Most of the fantastic auroral views we've been getting over the past month have been from the north side of the world — but the southern lights are getting their day in the sun as well, thanks largely to the International Space Station.

The northern lights are more widely seen primarily because the high northern latitudes are more populated than similar latitudes in the south: The southernmost cities in Australia and New Zealand are in the 40s, latitude-wise, while Argentina and Chile dip down into the mid-50s. In comparison, the prime aurora-viewing areas in the north are in the 60s and 70s.

The International Space Station flies as far as 51.6 north and south latitude on every orbit, and its astronauts have a far more commanding view of the polar regions than earthly skywatchers. So it's no surprise that they're regularly seeing the auroral glow during the current period of heightened solar activity. Right now, the station's crew is in the midst of a viewing campaign that's being coordinated with the Canadian Space Agency's AuroraMAX project. Some of the reddish glows reach all the way up to the space station's level, 240 miles above Earth.

"We can actually fly into the auroras," space station resident Don Pettit said recently. "It's like being shrunk down and put inside of a neon sign."

You've got lots of choices for browsing through auroral sights and other views from space. There's Kuipers' Flickr gallery, the NASA 2Explore Flickr site, NASA's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, the Expedition 30 gallery on NASA's Human Spaceflight website, and the Fragile Oasis Facebook page, where astronaut Ron Garan and his colleagues keep track of everything that's out there. To find out when you can see the space station from your locale, consult NASA's database for sighting opportunities.


This March 6 photo from the International Space Station highlights daybreak on the left side of the horizon, and the southern lights on the right side. The station was flying over the Indian Ocean at the time, or about 1,200 miles south of Australia. The view is toward the east. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft is connected to the Pirs docking compartment at center, and a Russian Progress cargo craft is docked at right.

The space station's astronauts aren't the only ones who are seeing the southern lights: Check out the pictures from New Zealand and Tasmania that are being posted to SpaceWeather.com. And stay tuned: Thanks to a series of solar outbursts over the weekend, heightened geomagnetic activity should continue through Tuesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center. That means there could be still more neon lights in the sky. Check out NOAA's Ovation Auroral Forecast and the University's Aurora Forecast website to find out if you're in the potential aurora zone.

Update for 9:30 p.m. ET: Tonight's northern lights were not to be missed at Sweden's Abisko National Park. "Tonight was very special," photographer Chad Blakley of Lights Over Lapland wrote in an email. "We had incredible auroras and were able to watch them dance as Venus and Jupiter went down behind the mountains." Here's a must-see time-lapse video of the scene:

Update for 4:30 p.m. ET March 14: ... And looking back Down Under, here's a wonderful video clip from Ian Stewart in Tasmania, looking south over Bruny Island. "This aurora was short lived, and obscured for the most part by cloud," Stewart wrote. "The cloud cleared just as the sky started glowing an eerie soft red, and the aurora faded into the beams of the rising moon at the end." Still more solar particles are coming our way, so stay tuned for more great views from the north and south. Check SpaceWeather.com for the latest.

More auroral glories:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.