Tens of kilometers above the icy waterfalls surrounding Iceland’s Kirkjufell Mountain, Earth’s magnetic field drags electrons from the sun to their visually stunning demise. The zooming particles collide with nitrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere, an interaction that produces a brilliant blue-green light show called an aurora.
Photographer Nicholas Roemmelt captured this scene on a moonlit night in March. The shot won him third prize in the “Beauty of the Night Sky” category of the recent International Earth & Sky Photo Contest.
While scientists know the basics of how auroras form, many aspects of the lights elude explanation. On March 3, NASA launched a rocket into the heart of an aurora shining above Venetie, Alaska, to measure the particles and electric fields at work. By combining the rocket’s data from its 10-minute flight with observations from the ground, researchers received an unprecedented look inside the northern lights. NASA hopes the mission will illuminate mysteries such as the origin of auroral curls, which look like cream swirling in a cup of coffee.