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Fwd = Orbiting astronaut sees mystery lights

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  • Frits Westra
    Orbiting astronaut sees mystery lights http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/story/0,9865,1073527,00.html Thursday October 30, 2003 The Guardian
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2003
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      Orbiting astronaut sees mystery lights

      http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/research/story/0,9865,1073527,00.html

      Thursday October 30, 2003
      The Guardian

      Astronaut Ed Lu returned on Monday from a six-month tour as science
      officer on the international space station with loads of memories and at
      least one nagging puzzle: what caused the mysterious flashes of light he
      saw while studying the Earth's aurora from orbit?

      Lu, who was a research astrophysicist before becoming an astronaut in
      1994, estimates that he spent 100 hours watching the northern and southern
      lights during half a year in space. The auroral light show, which takes
      place well below the station's 380km altitude, shimmers and pulses
      depending on natural variations in incoming solar particles trapped by the
      Earth's magnetic field.

      On three occasions - July 11, September 24 and October 12 - Lu saw
      something markedly different: flashes as bright as the brightest stars,
      which lasted only a second then blinked off again. In one instance, he
      called crew-mate Yuri Malenchenko over to the window to see the bursts. Lu
      says they appeared very different from the random but harmless retinal
      flashes that many astronauts experience when heavy cosmic rays hit their
      eyeballs.

      Given his limited time and ability to research the problem in space, Lu
      has tried to rule out other obvious explanations. The flashes weren't like
      sun glint from dust particles outside the station, which rotate and last
      longer than a second. Nor were they meteors, which look like linear
      streaks. Viewing conditions were wrong for a satellite or other artificial
      object. They only appeared in the direction of the aurora. And Lu checked
      weather maps, which showed no lightning storms below at the time of his
      observations. All of which leads him to the tentative conclusion that he
      saw some previously unreported pheno-menon associated with the aurora.

      EducationGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
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