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A space camera with a view
Berkeley's new far-ultraviolet imager trains its eyes on the northern lights
20 Oct 2000

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

 


video image from spacecraft

Halo 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. Courtesy:Harald Frey/SSl.

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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.

These views 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 cycle.

Regions of 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.

The ability 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.

"A significant 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."

New images, 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/ and http://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

The 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.

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Halo 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.

 


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