People gather on a spot in front of the town hall of Rjukan, Norway, Oct. 18, 2013, where sunshine is reflected by three giant mirrors erected on the mountainside above the industrial town.
Tore Meek / Scanpix via AP
People gather on a spot in front of the town hall of Rjukan, Norway, Oct. 18, 2013, where sunshine is reflected by three giant mirrors.
Rjukan, Norway, known for its darkness in winter, is located in the bottom of a valley between steep mountains in Telemark County, about 90 miles west of Oslo. The idea to use mirrors to reflect sunshine during the winter was launched 100 years ago but will finally become a reality after the official opening on Oct. 31.
According to the project's website, "computer-driven mirrors will follow the sun's movement over the horizon and will reflect its rays into Rjukan's market square."
Tore Meek / Scanpix via Reuters
Giant mirrors erected on the mountainside reflect sunlight into Rjukan.
It might sound scary to hear that a giant blob of solar plasma is heading straight for us, but don't panic: Space weather forecasters say this solar outburst should deliver nothing more than a spectacular show up north.
"We're not going to be in for a big disturbance," said Norm Cohen, senior forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado. "The northern tier of the United States might be able to see aurorae."
The outburst of electrically charged plasma — also known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME — blasted out from the sun on Jan. 13, sparking a radio blackout. It's taken several days for the blob itself to travel the 93 million miles between the sun and here, but forecasters now expect it to sweep over Earth's magnetic field early to midday Thursday.
When strong solar storms interact with the magnetosphere, they can spark satellite outages and disrupt electric power grids. Fortunately, this one shouldn't be that strong. (In geekspeak, let's just say that the maximum Kp is expected to reach no higher than 4. NOAA's space weather scale lays out the effects associated with higher Kp levels. Check out the prediction center's Facebook page for space weather updates.)
The most visible effect should be the northern lights generated by the interaction between the electrically charged solar particles and atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere, as explained on the "Causes of Color" website. This week's geomagnetic flare-up should add to what's already been a great week for auroral displays in northern latitudes.
Chad Blakley, a photographer at Sweden's Abisko National Park, sent in the beauty you see above. "It looks like there may be more powerful auroras in the days ahead," Blakley said in an email. "It is a very good time to be an aurora photographer!"
Glowing reports are coming in from space as well. Here's a picture captured by the Department of Defense's DMSP F-18 OLS low-light imager on Jan. 13. The green outlines show Ireland and Britain down south, and Iceland and Scandinavia up north. The ghostly wisps crossing the frame are the northern lights. It's conceivable that the bright streaks you see in this satellite picture are the same ones visible in Blakley's pictures.
DOD via Mark Conner / SpaceWeather.com
The northern lights show up as ghostly streaks of white in a satellite picture captured on Jan. 13 by a low-light imager on the Defense Department's DMSP F-18 meteorological satellite.
Aurora photographer Chad Blakley (www.lightsoverlapland.com) shot this time lapse of an aurora shimmering through the clouds over Abisko National Park in Sweden on the night of Jan. 13. The video was assembled from nearly 3,000 still images.
Are there more solar blasts heading our way? SpaceWeather.com notes that a complex sunspot region known as AR1654 is pointing in our direction and has the potential to send more big blobs of plasma our way. But Cohen said the worries about that particular sunspot have been receding.
"It's been fairly quiet in terms of flare production," he said. "If anything, it's beginning to show signs of decay."
In fact, there's been increasing talk that this year's expected peak of the sun's 11-year activity cycle could be relatively wimpy. Cohen said he didn't want to make that sweeping of a prediction — but he did admit that there hasn't been as much disruption as some people might have feared.
"The activity hasn't been all that impressive yet," he said.
Atmospheric optics turn sunlight into a celestial display as seen from Summit Station in Greenland on Oct. 14. Ed Stockard, one of the workers at the federally funded research station, says the display includes a halo, sun dogs, an upper tangent arc and more. "My eyelashes froze together, and my cheeks were getting nipped pretty good," Stockard writes.
Is this heaven? No, it's Greenland — lit up by a dazzling display of refracted sunlight.
These pictures are from Ed Stockard, who's part of the team at Summit Station on the peak of the Greenland ice cap. The research facility, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, serves as an observation post for the complex interactions between the atmosphere and one of the world's biggest reservoirs of ice.
The station is also an observation post for sky phenomena ranging from the northern lights to sun halos. And judging by his Flickr photo gallery, Stockard is getting an eyeful this season.
But there's more than meets the eye: Over at the Atmospheric Optics website, Les Cowley points out 11 separate optical phenomena that are on display. The combination of halos, arcs, sun dogs and a sun pillar has earned Stockard's Arctic scene a place as the Optics Picture of the Day.
You don't have to live in the Arctic to see the sun's weird effects. In midnorthern latitudes, this time of year brings misty days, and even some days when ice crystals hang in the air. That's prime time for halos, sun bows and moon bows, fog bows and more. Cowley's website guides you through all the magic that the air can provide — and for still more examples of that magic at work, click on the links below.
Buildings at Greenland's Summit Station are silhouetted by the sun and atmospheric effects.
Ed Stockard / Les Cowley / AtOptics.co.uk
A chart from the Atmospheric Optics website catalogs 11 optical effects that can be seen in Ed Stockard's fisheye-camera view of the sun at Summit Station.
The sun sent out a flare powerful enough to disrupt radio communications over Europe today, along with an eruption of electrically charged particles that just might sweep past Earth's magnetic field in time to spark a Fourth of July show of auroral fireworks.
The M5.6-class solar flare, observed by NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory at 6:52 a.m. ET (10:52 GMT), was almost powerful enough to cross over from the medium M-class category to an extreme X-class event, SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips noted. "A pulse of X-rays and UV radiation from the flare illuminated Earth's upper atmosphere, producing waves of ionization over Europe," he wrote.
Such waves can spark bursts of radio static, as recorded by Rob Stammes in Norway and noted by the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center. "Radio blackout storms have been observed in the past 24 hours," the center reported on its Facebook page.
SpaceWeather.com says the solar eruption threw out a coronal mass ejection, or CME — not directly toward Earth, but in a southerly celestial direction. In the video above, you can see the solar material blurping downward and outward from a monster sunspot region known as AR 1515.
Phillips writes that the "south-traveling cloud could deliver a glancing blow to our planet's magnetosphere on July 4th or 5th." However, the Space Weather Prediction Center says the CME "is not expected to disturb the field during the forecast period."
The sun is in the midst of an upswing in its 11-year activity cycle, heading toward an expected maximum in 2013. Right now there are five sunspot regions on the sun's Earth-facing side, and two of them — 1513 and 1515 — are considered capable of sending out M-class flares. Such flares are generally associated with moderate disruption of radio communication and navigation systems. As for today's CME, the most likely effect will be heightened displays of the northern and southern lights.
So if you're out and about on the night of the Fourth, sit back and enjoy the fireworks — whether they're terrestrial or celestial in origin. And if you happen to snap a great picture of the northern or southern lights, please share it with us via our FirstPerson photo upload page. If we get some good ones, we'll pass 'em along after the Fourth.
A double-burst of solar particles sparked auroral lights over the weekend, as expected — but at least in some parts of the world, the colors were not what you'd expect. Instead of the typical greenish glow, observers reported seeing reds, pinks, violets and even blues.
"It's been many years since I saw the blue in our auroras, but Saturday night they came back," John Welling reported in a note accompanying the photo he posted to SpaceWeather.com.
Pinks, reds and blues also dominated the scene captured on camera early Sunday by Brad Goldpaint, from a vantage point above Oregon's Crater Lake. In an email, Goldpaint told me the opportunity came about "by pure coincidence."
"Capturing this famous light show had been a dream of mine for several years, but I could not have imagined the lights showing up in my own backyard!" Goldpaint wrote. "After setting up near the Rim Village Visitor Center lookout area, I began to notice a faint band of moving light slowly making its way from behind the Watchman Tower, around 1:30 a.m. My camera began picking up bright pink bursts of light towards the north, with what also looked like unfamiliar vertical bands of light stretching upwards from the horizon. I quickly changed my camera’s white balance to confirm I was not picking up some random light pollution, or hallucinating in my drowsy state. Following additional exposures, I came up with the same amazing results. The magical shifting scene continued until sunrise, and like most days in the wilderness, I was awed and humbled by true nature personified."
The colors of the aurora depend on the wavelength of the light emitted when fast-moving, electrically charged particles from the sun interact with different types of atoms and ions in Earth's upper atmosphere. If the particles hit mostly oxygen atoms, the light will be in the greenish-yellowish-reddish range. Collisions with nitrogen atoms produce the blue, purple and deep red hues.
The altitude of the auroral glow also affects the color: At altitudes between 60 and 120 miles (100 and 200 kilometers), the oxygen emissions tend toward the green side of the spectrum. At higher altitudes, you'll see more red. Blend all those colors, and you get a beautiful, wide-ranging palette.
The "Causes of Color" website provides a fuller spectrum of information. And speaking of a fuller spectrum, here are more of the weekend's colors, plus a bonus video:
Pink and purple rays highlight this picture of the aurora as seen from South Dakota's Black Hills by Randy Halverson. Technical details: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-70, f/2.8 ISO 3200, 20-second exposure. For more of Halverson's images, click on over to Dakotalapse.com.
Stephen Voss snapped pictures of the southern lights from a spot near Invercargill in the south of New Zealand. "A dull arc hung around for a couple of hours before suddenly exploding with a mixture of rays and curtains," Voss told SpaceWeather.com. Check out Voss' gallery at Deep South Astrophotography.
Scott Lowther snapped this panoramic picture of Saturday night's auroral display as seen from Tremonton, Utah. The shot was taken with a Nikon D5000 and a 55mm lens at f/1.4 with 6-second exposures. For more of Lowther's photos, check out the Art by Earthlings website.
Shawn Malone / LakeSuperiorPhoto.com
Shawn Malone snapped this picture before dawn on Sunday morning from Marquette, Mich. "Got to witness the tail end of aurora activity as the skies cleared about 15-20 minutes before the sunrise light moved in," Malone told SpaceWeather.com. "Photos taken between 3:50 a.m. and 4:15 a.m. Bright aurora, with rays of light overhead, almost forming a corona. Beautiful purples came through on the exposures, but only light visible to the eye, as is typical with auroras right before sunrise." Check out LakeSuperiorPhoto.com for more of Malone's work.
Here's a 13-minute recap of three winters' worth of auroral imagery from Sweden. It's all part of "Light Over Lapland: The Aurora Borealis Experience" from Chad Blakley of LightsOverLapland.com on Vimeo. For best results, go full screen and HD. "The movie is a compilation of many thousands of still images captured in Abisko National Park," Blakley writes. "By my calculation I have spent no less than 2,000 hours pointing my camera at the sky recording the northern lights to create this film. ... I am enjoying the midnight sun and all of its warmth, but I am ready for the darkness and the auroras to return."
A bird comes into land atop one of the domes of the landmark Taj Mahal as Venus, begins to pass in front of the sun, as visible from Agra, India, June 6.
Ali Jarekji / Reuters
The planet Venus is seen as a black dot projected onto a girl's forehead as it makes its transit across the sun, in Amman, Jordan, June 6.
Erik De Castro / Reuters
Filipino students use negative film strips to watch Venus passing between the sun and the earth in Silang, Cavite south of Manila June 6.
Nikolay Doychinov / AFP - Getty Images
The planet Venus, seen as a black dot in transit across the sun during sunrise in Sofia on June 6.
Hussein Malla / AP
A Lebanese man looks through a protective viewing filter to watch the transit of planet Venus moving across the sun in Beirut, Lebanon, June 6. People around the world turned their attention to the daytime sky on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia to make sure they caught the rare sight of the transit of Venus. The next one won't be for another 105 years.
We've published a number of photos from today's annular eclipse that happened in Asia and the western US, many of which show telephoto views of the moon's disk obscuring part of the sun. Take a step back with this panorama created by msnbc.com's John Brecher, stitched together from several images, to see some of the other sights that surround you during a solar eclipse: note the ring-shaped shadows on the white van made by light filtering through the trees, the reduced-contrast quality of the sunlight that's been shaped by the moon's edges, and the reactions of people as they use various optics to observe the phenomenon.
A particularly angry region of the sun has been throwing some strong solar storms toward us over the past week, but there's just one more blast to weather. This picture, from astrophotographer Alan Friedman, shows active region 1429 as it rolls toward the edge of the sun's disk.
Friedman specializes in solar photography that keys in on hydrogen-alpha wavelengths, a part of the spectrum that is particularly well-suited to show variations in the sun's seething surface. The sunspots are magnetically disturbed whorls of plasma that are prone to send out flares and eruptions of electrically charged particles.
Last week, AR1429 blasted out a series of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, that sparked colorful auroral displays. They also sparked worries about the potential disruption to satellite communications, electrical grids and GPS navigation. Fortunately, the direction and magnetic orientation of the CMEs weren't as threatening as they could have been.
AR1429 got off a parting shot on Tuesday, in the form of a medium-size M7.9-class flare and eruption. By now, the sunspot region has migrated to near the edge of the sun's disk and is starting to fade. The CME is taking "a path not toward Earth," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center reported. As a result, the eruption is expected to produce "minor to moderate" geomagnetic storms — which shouldn't pose a huge threat to power grids or electronics.
When the wave of charged particles sweeps over Earth's magnetic field, the extra geomagnetic activity should give a boost to the aurora. That could happen as early as tonight. So it's a good idea to check in with the usual suspects, including the prediction center's Facebook page as well as SpaceWeather.com, the Ovation Auroral Forecast page and the University of Alaska's Aurora Forecast website.
The sun shines through Martin's Hole, a natural gap just underneath the jagged ridge of Mount Grosses Tschingelhorn (2849 metres/9347 feet) near the eastern Swiss alpine village of Elm on Wednesday. Twice a year, about eight days before the start of spring and again about eight days after the beginning of autumn, the rising sun sends its rays through the 19-meter wide hole in the mountain face before clearing the ridge.