spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

Astronaut Snaps Breathtaking View Of Earth’s Airglow From Space

The subtle glow that shines across the atmosphere is captured by the astronaut.


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Edited by Laura Simmons
Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

An image of the Earth from space. The pacific and many cloud formation are visible as well as part of the ISS. at the edge of our planet where the curvature becomes visible two colorful arcs stand above the world. A yellow thin one and above a fuzzy red one

Airglow seen from the ISS.

Image credit: NASA, ESA/Andreas Mogensen

The interaction between light from the Sun, charged particles, and molecules in the atmosphere can create a variety of glowing phenomena. The best known are the Northern and Southern Lights. They truly put on a show, but they are not the only ones. A more subtle phenomenon is called airglow, and while it is possible to see it from the ground, it is from space that you can get the best view.

In an image snapped by astronaut Andreas Mogensen, a double airglow is visible in the atmosphere. The yellow glow is due to the particles of sodium in the atmosphere, while the red is caused by the oxygen and, to a lesser extent, hydroxyl (oxygen plus a hydrogen molecule) that is present even higher in the atmosphere.


This weak luminescence in the upper atmosphere is caused by the interaction between light and the molecules or atoms. Sunlight energizes molecules over the day, slitting them apart, or exciting electrons from their atoms. The energy is then lost in the following hours, due to collisions with other molecules. That emission of energy happens at a specific color, creating the characteristics of airglow that can be seen here.

An infographic showing the formation of airglow. Between 50 and 100 km, its yellow and caused by sodium. Above that until 170 is green and caused by molecular oxygen, and above that going to 300 km is red from atomic oxygen
Airglow forms from different molecules and at different altitudes.
Image Credit: © IFLScience

As long as there are molecules and atoms to excite, airglow can form. While most of it comes from a fairly narrow region, between 50 and 300 kilometers (31 to 180 miles), NASA reports that it can extend over twice as far. And while it is a pretty spectacle, it can also be very useful, providing insight in the motion and distribution of the extremely rarefied layers in the highest portions of the atmosphere.


spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy
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  • atmosphere,

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  • airglow