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Aurora extravaganza glows in space

NASA videos show January's northern lights from high above. NBC's Brian Williams reports.




Colorful videos prove that the astronauts on the International Space Station had the best seats in the house during last month's flare-up of auroral activity.

NASA's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth is offering a whole new batch of time-lapse videos from the Jan. 25-30 period, when an active region on the sun was blasting out a healthy dose of electrically charged particles and lighting up Earth's upper atmosphere.


Time-lapse video from the International Space Station on Jan. 29. These sequences of frames were taken at the rate of one frame per second, which is closer than usual to the station's true speed.

These latest videos are notable because they're assembled from still pictures that were taken at a rate of one frame per second, rather than the usual frame every three seconds. As a result, the pace of the videos is more leisurely and a somewhat closer match to the true speed of the space station.

The video above documents a minute of flight heading east from the Pacific over the Canadian West Coast, heading toward southern Alberta near Calgary. I love watching the ripples and flashes of the green aurora over Canada — seasoned with a dash of red from the atomic oxygen that exists at higher altitudes. Why is there red as well as green in the aurora? We've addressed that question before, but this Aurora FAQ from the University of Alaska provides a quick explanation.

Here are a couple more videos, tracking the space station's flight over the U.S. East Coast as well as central North America. But you don't have to stop here. Visit NASA's Gateway, which offers still photos from the space station in addition to the videos, and check out the YouTube channel for NASA Crew Earth Observations. My favorite places for space imagery also include the Fragile Oasis Facebook page, NASA astronaut Ron Garan's Google+ page and Jason Major's Lights in the Dark blog.

This video was taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 29 during a pass from just southwest of Mexico to the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Newfoundland. As the space station travels northeast over the Gulf of Mexico, you can see New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville and Atlanta. Continuing up the East Coast, the cities of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City stand out brightly. The northern lights shine in the background as the pass finishes near Newfoundland.

This video was taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 26 during a pass from North Dakota to central Quebec. The northern lights can be seen near the space station, with small patches of the green auroral light dancing around.

If auroras, atmospheric phenomena and solar activity are your thing, you can't do much better than SpaceWeather.com, which is keeping track of lovely aurora pictures like this one from Chad Blakley at Abisko National Park in Sweden. Be sure to check out Blakley's Lights Over Lapland website while you're at it.

Chad Blakley / Lights Over Lapland

Photographer Chad Blakley captured this view of the northern lights over Sweden's Abisko National Park on Feb. 6. "The lights started around 6:00 p.m. and continued into the very early hours of the morning," Blakley told SpaceWeather.com. Check out Blakley's gallery on SpaceWeather.com for still more stunning views.

AuroraMAX / CSA

The rippling northern lights share the skies with a nearly full moon over Yellowknife in Canada's Northern Territories early today, as seen by the Canadian Space Agency's AuroraMAX wide-angle camera. To keep on top of northern Canada's aurora extravaganza, check the AuroraMAX website and Twitpic account.

Update for 3:25 p.m. ET Feb. 8: I originally wrote that the pace of the latest videos from the space station was nearly a true match to the station's orbital speed, but after double-checking with the folks at Johnson Space Center, I'd say it's more accurate to call them a "truer" match than usual. The videos were assembled from still photographs that were captured by a digital camera at the rate of one frame per second, rather than the usual frame every three seconds. That makes for a slower-paced video, but not a real-time speed, because the Web video plays at a rate that's more than one frame per second.

M ore 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.