With today’s super telescopes, we are better placed than ever to witness the astonishing celestial beauty of stars, nebulae and quasars. But while telescopes are invaluable to our understanding of the distant Universe, there are luminous cosmic energies at play far closer to home that can be seen clearly with the naked eye. Most people have heard tales of the legendary Northern Lights – a.k.a. Aurora Borealis – but their southern cousins, Aurora Australis, make no less magical a spectacle.
Like the work of some immense extraterrestrial artist, auroras are intensely beautiful natural light displays seen in the sky, primarily in polar areas and mostly at night. Forming great swathes of colour, the lights are more visible nearer to the poles due to the longer periods of darkness and magnetic fields.
When observed close to the magnetic pole, aurorae may appear high overhead in what are actually altitudes some 100 km up. Yet from further away, they can also light up the horizon as a vivid green radiance or at times as a hazy red – as if the sun were rising from a bizarre direction.