SOUTHERN LIGHTS FROM THE STRATOSPHERE: Last night, there were no geomagnetic storms. A research aircraft in the stratosphere saw auroras anyway. “Last night, I was a guest on a flight of SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) out of Christchurch New Zealand,” reports astronomer Ian Griffin. “Our flight path took us down to latitude 61 in the general direction of the magnetic pole.” Before long, green lights were shimmering across the southern Milky Way:
“Despite a low Kp value of 1, lady aurora graced the southern sky as the astronomers aboard SOFIA collected their precious data. I even got to take some pictures of auroras from the cockpit,” says Griffiths.
The high-flying astronomers witnessed Earth’s persistent southern auroral oval, a ring-shaped region surrounding the south pole where the geomagnetic field guides solar wind particles down onto the upper atmosphere. This extraterrestrial rain may ebb, but it never stops. Inside the oval, sputtering auroras can suddenly blossom into magnificent sprays of green and purple light–no geomagnetic storm required.