Amazing Photos Show Southern Lights Shimmering Over the Indian Ocean As Seen From ISS

NASA has released captivating new photos of the southern lights, also called the aurora australis.

Four of the photos can be seen below. They were taken from the International Space Station as it orbited around 270 miles above the southern Indian Ocean between Asia and Antarctica.

The photos were released by NASA's Johnson space center on August 2.

In Focus

Aurora australis

Aurora australis, seen from the International Space Station. NASA photo uploaded August 2 and shared under Creative Commons:
Launch Slideshow 4 PHOTOS

The images show the polar lights glowing in a range of colors, from an eerie green to a bright violet. Above the lights, vast numbers of stars can be seen shining many light years away.

In a tweet sharing the photos, the International Space Station said the aurora australis looked "spectacular."

Aurora australis is the southern counterpart to the northern aurora borealis, known as the southern and northern lights, respectively.

The brilliant colors can also be seen from the surface of the Earth, as well as by astronauts floating above.

The auroras are named after the Roman goddess of dawn. They are caused when charged solar winds, sent by the sun, interact with the Earth's magnetic field.

These solar winds are made up of charged particles—an electrified gas that rushes through the solar system at high speed.

Sometimes, the sun experiences what scientists call a coronal mass ejection (CME), and these can cause particularly strong blasts of charged particles to hit Earth.

If solar winds are strong enough they can interfere with day-to-day electronics, but most of the time we don't notice them because the Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield.

Due to the shape of the magnetic field, these solar winds can sometimes be directed around the Earth, away from the equator, and down into the north and south poles where they reach the Earth's atmosphere.

When these charged solar particles interact with the molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, they pass on energy that is released as a flash of light.

Scale this up to billions of such collisions, and these flashes of light combine to form the colorful auroras that we see.

The different colors of the auroras occur because Earth's atmosphere is made up of different gases, and these glow differently. Oxygen produces green and red light, while nitrogen, which makes up about 78 percent of our planet's atmosphere, glows blue and purple.

Scientists study the auroras to give them an insight into how the Earth's magnetic field behaves in response to space weather.

NASA sends up scientific rockets known as sounding rockets for this purpose, which take quick, relatively short trips up into space to gather data using on-board instruments.