space camera with a view
new far-ultraviolet imager trains its eyes on the northern lights
Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
The first images
to show the invisible portions of an aurora from space have
been released by a team of UC Berkeley scientists operating
the far-ultraviolet camera on board NASA's Magnetosphere-to-Aurora
Global Exploration (IMAGE) spacecraft.
of the aurora borealis were captured during a violent magnetic
storm in earth's upper atmosphere on Bastille Day (July 14-15).
The onslaught of particles produced sparkling halos of electrified
particles writhing, thickening and thinning to wispy streaks
of light during four hours of observations. Many light shows
-- caused when huge eruptions of fast-moving, multimillion-degree
gas from the sun crash into earth's protective magnetic shell
-- are expected to occur through the middle of 2001 as earth
experiences the sun's fury at the height of the 11-year solar
these iridescent halos were invisible to scientists before launch
of the IMAGE space weather satellite. IMAGE performs its sentry
duty by photographing the glow caused when light or particles
coming directly from the sun, or nearby particles whipped up
to high energies, smash into atoms in the upper atmosphere.
Launched in March 2000, the spacecraft follows a highly eccentric
orbit which takes it far enough from the Earth that, at times,
the whole planet, and its fluorescing plasma, can be captured
within the camera's photographic frame.
to view the Earth and its environs through plasma-colored glasses,
as only IMAGE's cameras can, is important for understanding
basic geophysics properties of the Earth and for monitoring
"space weather," the term for disturbances in our planet's vicinity
caused by fields and particles flowing from the sun.
gap in our understanding of auroras has come from our inability
to image proton auroras, which make up a large part of the aurora,
because they are very diffuse and are almost invisible to the
naked eye," said UC Berkeley's Stephen Mende, an atmospheric
physicist and lead investigator of the far-ultraviolet instrument.
"They are distinctly visible in the far-ultraviolet and, for
the first time, we are tracking them to learn more about the
structure of auroras."
updated every 60 seconds, and animations of the northern auroras,
captured by IMAGE's far-ultraviolet camera, are available on
the UC Berkeley IMAGE web site at http://sprg.ssl.berkeley.edu/image/.
Additional mission information, views of solar storms, images
and video clips are also available at http://pluto.space.swri.edu/IMAGE/
spacecraft is the first dedicated to studying the entire magnetosphere,
an invisible field that extends for thousands of miles beyond
the Earth. The region generates space weather as particles belched
from the sun run into the planet's magnetism.
movie requires that QuickTime or Windows Media Player
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applications installed, download a free copy from the
Media Player web sites.
of an aurora -- The rippling ring of an aurora, seen
from the IMAGE spacecraft, flares, thickens and brightens
over Earth's north pole as a torrent of solar particles
crashed into the upper atmosphere July 14-15, 2000. IMAGE's
far-ultraviolet camera is revealing fine details in the
structure and shapes of these electrified halos as the
new space weather satellite moves over and away from the
north pole every 14 hours.