A new charter flight that departs from New Zealand gives people the chance to view the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. 

On March 23, 130 passengers went on board of the Boeing 767 and departed from Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island to the edge of Antarctica (62 degrees of latitude) to see the southern version of the Aurora Borealis. 

aurora australis charter
The Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) shines from Goats Bluff, Tasmania Image Credit: Australian Traveller

The round trip lasted 16 hours 

Tickets for the “Flight to the Lights” sold out in five days on the date of their release in September. Some of the people who bought them traveled from across the globe to witness the Southern Lights. The prices ranged from $2800 per pair for economic class and $5600 per pair for business class.

Flight to the Lights’ passengers set up a Facebook group when preparing for the trip, and excitement characterized all of them. Dr. Ian Griffin, who came up with the idea for Flight to the Lights last year, said that people weren’t discouraged by the prices. Dr. Griffin noted that they could have filled three trips if they had opened them. The passengers were from all walks of life, from plumbers to photographers.

“I think it’s something that does inspire wonder and there are so many beautiful stories in folklore about what causes aurora,” said Dr. Griffin according to Radio New Zealand. “It’s one of those things you see in the sky and think ‘oh my gosh what causes that, isn’t it magical to see?’”

The flight did not disappoint the passengers and some shared photos of the event on the Facebook Page. Roz Charlton, one of the passengers in the “Flight to the Lights,” said that this incredible experience forever changed their lives and that they are eternally grateful for being a part of the remarkable event.

However, some of the other passengers aboard the Boeing 767 weren’t quite so thrilled. Griffin explained that some people might have been waiting to see something a little more bright, but everyone got lovely photographs of the event.

What causes the Aurora’s color?

According to ABC Australia, the beginning of auroras came from the center of the solar system, when the Sun threw out plasma that charged with electrons and protons into space which is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). Then the plasma spewed from a CME travels 150 million kilometers, crashes Earth’s magnetic field and causes a geomagnetic storm.

Dr. David Neudegg, space and radio scientist in the Space Weather Services at the Bureau of Meteorology, explained to ABC Australia that the auroras are created by the excitation of atoms in the top atmosphere while the CME ejected from the Sun travels along Earth’s magnetic field and lines to the north and south pole.

“As the atoms settle back down, the electrons that have been pushed up to high energy, they settle back down to their normal level and give off light,” explained Neudegg according to ABC.

Neudegg notes that because the shockwaves that the Sun casts are so large, they cover the Earth’s entire magnetic field, allowing aurora to appear in the north and south pole at the same time. Auroras occur on 11-year cycles, although Neudegg believes that in a couple of years the Earth will enter on a long and deep solar minimum.

The most common colors in auroras are green, brownish-red and whitish-yellow. The green forms when molecular oxygen that comes from high altitudes descends at about 100 kilometers. The brownish-red comes from single oxygen atoms at above 300 kilometers, and the whitish-yellow originates from a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. Sometimes Auroras are a little blue, and it happens when molecular nitrogen glows below 100 kilometers.

Dunedin, the most perfectly preserved Victorian city in the world, New Zeland. Image Credit: Vacations To Go

The Human eye can’t pick up on all of the lights

Neudegg also explained why some people weren’t able to enjoy the Southern Lights. He noted that advanced technology in digital cameras could cause the device to pick up colors that the human eye can’t. The human eyes cones sense color in the day, and rods detect lights at night. Rods see the faint light in general, and as the Aurora is more visible at night, the eye finds it difficult to capture every shade and tone of the light.

“What to the eye may look a pale green or even a white color- when you see a digital photograph the colors can be fantastic, it’s pulled out all sorts of colors that we can’t see with our eyes,” said Neudegg to ABC.

Dr. Ian Griffin is currently the Director of the Otago Museum in Dunedin, and he’s already working on another “Flight to the Lights” next year. If the plane is larger than a Boeing’s 767, the flight will have to depart from Christchurch in Invercargill, because Dunedin’s runway is not long enough for a larger plane.

Source: Smithsonian Mag