PHOTOS OF AN UNUSUAL SKY PHENOMENON FROM SVALBARD

BY PAUL D. MALEY

NASA JOHNSON SPACE CENTER ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY, HOUSTON, TEXAS USA

 

On the night of March 21, 2015 I was in Longyearbyen, Svalbard photographing aurora. However, after repeatedly going in and out of our hotel I happened to look up and notice a peculiar object directly overhead.  My location was  78.2200° N, 15.6500° E and I was using 15 second exposures at ISO1600 to record aurora; 14mm lens, Nikon D3100. The first time I saw this diffuse object it was during a break from the aurora activity at 1.23am local time March 21.  This would be 00.23 UT. I took a total of 17 exposures from 0023UT to 01.08UT with the same exposure times.

Svalbard Mystery Object: A natural explanation is offered for this. See the end of this web page. However, readers are asked to submit any specific references that might assist to finalize the origin using the approximate camera times and orientation relative to stars in Ursa Major for guidance.  The relative position in the sky was roughly overhead.

Frame 1 taken at 00.23 UT. Notice the satellite track in this and the next exposure.

Svalbard Mystery Object

 

Frame 2 taken at 00.24UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

 

Frame 3 taken at 00.25UT.  The faint colored glows may or may not be connected to this apparition.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 4 taken at 00.26UT. Notice the change in alignment relative to the Big Dipper stars.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 5 taken at 00.32 UT which appears to show the cloud has dissipated with various angular orientations. Also the faint unrelated satellite trail.  After this I assumed everything was at an end. But some minutes later my attention was again drawn to the same part of the sky as I began looking for aurora.  I then saw what appeared to be a 2nd occurrence of this phenomenon as in the images below.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 6 taken at 00.46UT with a different alignment relative to the Big Dipper stars compared with the first event. Notice the rough alignment with some of the faint wisps.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 7 taken at 00.47 UT where the alignment changes again.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 8 taken at 00.48UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 9 taken at 00.49UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 10 taken at 00.50 UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 11 taken at 00.51UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 12 taken at 00.52UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 13 taken at 00.54UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 14 taken at 00.56UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 15 taken at 01.00UT

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 16 taken at 01.06UT as clouds begin to threaten.

Svalbard Mystery Object

Frame 17 taken at 01.08UT as clouds envelop the area and did not clear.

Ted Molczan suggests that this might be a light pillar of some sort.  There is some evidence to suggest this. During that period in another part of the sky I took the following wide angle picture.

Svalbard Mystery Object

This shot was taken during the prior time period as I first attempted aurora photography successfully between 2315 and 2327. I noticed these vertically oriented pillars that appeared and remained in place for a long period of time.  Their locations were due south while the phenomenon above was confined to a smaller area overhead.  Some ground observers assumed these were aurora but although natural phenomena, they never moved. Therefore the suggestion that the image above showing vertical light pillars seems logical.

A POSSIBLE NATURAL EXPLANATION

In the absence of any other explanation readers should consult: http://www.caelestia.be/article01d.html in which the following may be a similar image.  The text below is from the aforementioned web site.

Svalbard Mystery Object

 

Usually, reflections from ground-based lights in high clouds appear as vertically oriented pillars of light. An 1887 article from the American Meteorological Journal describes the phenomenon, then referred to as “gas comets”, as “bright streaks or bars of light (…), measuring on an average one-quarter of a degree in width and from 5 to 15 degrees in length”  

Light pillars can be visible for minutes, even hours, disappearing and reappearing just like a light that is switched on and off. The length of the streaks depends not only on the angle under which the pillar is seen, and which is determined by the altitude of the reflecting layer and the distance between the observer and the light source, but also on the thickness of the ice-crystal cloud. 

Close-up images of light pillars sometimes show peculiar features. These can be due to the distribution of the ice crystals in the cloud or to the nature of the light source that causes the pillar. Clouds with different concentrations of ice crystals at different altitudes for example will give the reflection the appearance of a luminous string with brighter areas where ice-crystal concentrations are high. Because clouds move and change shape, the aspect of the reflections will change accordingly.

examples of light pillars, Svalbard Mystery Object

Four examples of light pillars showing peculiarities. From left to right: segmented pillar caused by a gas flame reflecting off separated ice-crystal layers positioned one on top of the other; pillar with multiple nuclei caused by the reflection of a gas flame in a thick cloud with different concentrations of ice crystals at different altitudes; rope pillar, also caused by a gas flame, but here the reason for its specific shape is unclear; combined pillar presumably caused by multiple spotlights placed close together. 

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