The Crew-2 astronauts returning from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft on Monday, Nov. 8, were treated to what was described as the "strongest auroras of the entire mission" as they flew towards the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, a report from Space.com revealed.
This was partially due to the Sun's recent uptick in activity as we get closer to the peak of the little-understood 11-year solar cycle that sees the star's magnetic field completely flip, leading to an increase in solar flares.
Record-breaking spaceflight returns to Earth
The Crew-2 mission set a record for the longest spaceflight by the U.S. crewed spacecraft, NASA explained in a press release. The crew, which included NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, launched on April 23, meaning they spent a total of 199 days in orbit before safely splashing down on Monday.
"We were treated to the strongest auroras of the entire mission, over North America and Canada," ESA astronaut Pesquet wrote on Twitter alongside an image of the aurora borealis taken from space. "Amazing spikes higher than our orbit. Star-struck, and we flew right above the centre of the ring, rapid waves and pulses all over."
The entirety of the splashdown operation, as it happened live, can be viewed in the NASA TV video below.
How does the aurora borealis form and is it dangerous for astronauts?
Astronauts frequently see the auroras from the ISS, though this one was particularly impressive due to its intensity and the fact that the Crew-2 astronauts flew overhead on the small SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule before re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
This particular aurora borealis was caused by several coronal mass ejections blasted out by the Sun last week. According to Space.com, one of these bursts of magnetized plasma caught up with another one and "cannibalized" it, or merged with it, as they both approached Earth. This resulted in a very powerful blast of plasma, resulting in the spectacular northern lights seen by the Crew-2 astronauts.
We were treated to the strongest auroras of the entire mission, over north America and Canada. Amazing spikes higher than our orbit🤩, and we flew right above the centre of the ring, rapid waves and pulses all over. #MissionAlpha https://t.co/5rdb08ljhx pic.twitter.com/0liCkGvRCh— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 6, 2021
Auroras are caused by magnetic and solar storms or magnetized plasma particles from the Sun that react with the Earth's magnetic field. The aurora posed no real danger to the astronauts who flew overhead, though there is a potential danger of elevated radiation exposure, mitigated in part by the Dragon Crew capsule's radiation shielding.
An assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, also recently warned that we know little about the effects of the strongest types of solar storms, and that they have the potential to knock out the world's internet. In 1989, for example, a solar storm cut off the electrical supply to more than 6 million people for nine hours in and around Québec. For the Crew-2 mission, however, the aurora was simply a stunning way to cap off their record-breaking stay in space.