High-altitude studies of the Northern Lights

According to National Geographic, these unique high-altitude films (taken from HuffPo) of the aurora borealis were taken by GoPro cameras mounted on weather balloons:

About a dozen weather balloons carrying high-definition cameras and science experiments took to the skies this month as part of an unprecedented study of auroras.

Launched from near Fairbanks,Alaska, the balloons were designed to be a cost-effective way to study the light shows, which are created when charged solar particles interact with Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re trying to image the auroras from an altitude of about 100,000 feet [30 kilometers],” said project founder Benjamin Longmier, a physicist with the Ad Astra Rocket Company and an adjunct member of the physics department at the University of Houston in Texas.

“We knew going into this that this was going to be a very difficult feat, but we were attacking it from quite a few engineering and technology-development approaches.”

Dubbed Project Aether: Aurora, the expedition was a collaboration between Ad Astra, Texas A&M University, and GoPro, a maker of wearable HD cameras.

Over the span of about a week, project members attached sensors, science experiments, and modified GoPro cameras to latex weather balloons and released them in central Alaska, where auroras are visible nearly year-round. . .

At that height, the change in air pressure caused each balloon to expand to almost 30 feet (9 meters)—”about the size of a small house”—before popping, Longmier said.

Once the balloons burst, the payloads fell back to Earth on parachutes, and scientists found them using satellite and ground-radio GPS.

Read more about this project at the National Geographic site. For more video footage of this year’s spectacular displays of the Northern Lights, go here.


  1. emmageraln
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  2. Posted May 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    5:27 min video of The Trey Anastasio Band PLASMA Wellmont Theater, NJ October 12th 2011 [The guitar solo thus avoiding the terrible lyrics :)]

  3. MadScientist
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The GoPros are surprisingly good for their price; I wish I created them.

  4. Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    One of these was launched from Poker Flat, my research site, where they got a tour of the facilities. I have a few shots of the balloon being assembled and pushed out the door with brief comments if anyone is interested – http://musubk.blogspot.com/2012/04/helium-balloon.html

    • Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      In the video Jerry posted, the shot starting at about 1:00 is a good example of pulsating aurora; the dimmer, more diffuse patches that periodically brighten and dim. At around 1:24 a diffuse arc forms (what most people think of as aurora, the pulsating type is much less well known). The diffuse arc is probably the poleward edge of the auroral zone – you can see lots of tall ray structures in it, likely Alfven wave activity from recent magnetic reconnection in the magnetosphere.

      Auroras are fun 🙂

      • Posted May 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        *cough* discrete arc, not diffuse arc.

  5. Dan
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Awesome video, but just in case anyone plans a vacation around that idea, National Geographic is absolutely incorrect that “auroras are visible nearly year-round” in Central Alaska. They are much rarer than that.

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