Atmospheric Optics and Phenomena, A New TWAN Gallery

TWAN-style photography not only reveals the beauty of the night illuminated by the stars and the moon, but also the glowing colors of the air itself.




















By David Malin* published on 2013 June 7

Even in the darkest places on the planet, far away from city lights, the night sky is never completely black. Hold your hand up to the sky in the middle of Australia or the Chilean Andes and you can count your fingers against the sky. This is the natural airglow, the feeble phosphorescence created in the the upper atmosphere as it releases energy absorbed from solar radiation during the day. Most of the airglow appears at altitudes of 80 km or more. Unlike the much brighter aurorae, the airglow is much more constant and the result of stored energy from the steady stream of ultraviolet light and X-rays from the Sun.

Its nature and origins have been known for a long time, but only recently has it become possible to photograph the phenomena in color, using modern, off-the-shelf digital cameras. The colors are sometimes spectacular, with vivid reds and greens, occurring in structured sheets, streaks and ripples that move across the sky, revealing the complex chemistry and physics at work in the upper atmosphere on the edge of space.


Other hard to capture features of the night sky are moonlight rainbows and haloes around the moon from ice crystals high in the atmosphere, and even rarer are haloes around the moon from pollen grains suspended in the air. Also included in this list of beautiful but obscure phenomena is the 'glory', a halo-like right of light around shadow of the head of an observer. This surely must be the origin of the halo around the heads of significant church figures in Christian religious paintings since medieval times. They usually occur in misty dawn or evening light conditions in the mountains, circumstances that would the lift the spirits of anyone!


The wonderful variety and endless forms of these phenomena of the twilight and night-time are now accessible to anyone with a relatively simple and affordable camera -- and with some knowledge of where to point it, since some of these beautiful events are both fleeting and invisible, but nonetheless real manifestations of the natural world.

TWAN Galleries:
Atmospheric Optics and Phenomena:
See imagery of airglow on TWAN search page

* David Malin is widely known as the world's most distinguished night sky photographer. A pioneer of color imaging of the far universe, Malin has been involved in scientific imaging his entire working life since he joined the Anglo-Australian Observatory in 1975. His prominent heritage includes several discoveries, new imaging and developing methods, and global public outreach of astronomy through his books and images.


Click to enlarge the photo

Click to enlarge the photo

Click to enlarge the photo

Click to enlarge the photo


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