04/25/2012 10:08 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2012

Project Aether Sends Cameras 100,000 Feet To Photograph Northern Lights (VIDEO) (UPDATE)

UPDATE: 4:00 p.m. 4/26 -- An earlier version of this story quoted "Plasma Jam's" description on Vimeo, which has since been changed, that said it "contains the first-ever photos from within the Northern Lights." The Huffington Post spoke to Ben Longmier, the founder and director of Project Aether, who elaborated in an email to The Huffington Post why that statement isn't accurate.

The balloons did not go inside the aurora. The light emission from the aurora typically occurs at altitudes from ~80-200km, where the exact altitude range depends on the energy of incoming electrons and ions streaming from the Sun. However, secondary ionization that is caused by the aurora exists at much lower altitudes, and the balloons and cameras did fly directly through these areas of enhanced ionization. Early indications from our new plasma instrument show this enhanced ionization as a function of altitude up to the balloon burst height of 31km. In order for our sensors to pick up these signals they had to measure electrical currents as low as 1/100th of a nano-Amp.

Additionally, based on the National Geographic report, an earlier version of this post said that Ad Astra Rocket Company collaborated with Project Aether: Aurora. Longmier works at Ad Astra but the company is not involved with the Project Aether: Aurora expedition.


We've all seen some awe-inspiring videos of the northern lights but, with the exception of those taken from airplanes and the International Space Station, all of them have been shot from terra firma.

Until now.

According to National Geographic, GoPro, the company behind those tiny HD video cameras, teamed up with Texas A&M University to send weather balloons into the aurora borealis in central Alaska. The balloons were equipped not only with instruments to study the aurora, but also with modified GoPro cameras.

The effort was the latest project from a group called "Project Aether," which aims to work with schools to teach students about physics, research "and to make space exploration accessible to students," according to the organization's web site.

One of the products of the launch was "Plasma Jam," a short video that alternates between photos taken on the ground and images snapped at 100,000 feet. A GoPro camera is visible in the images that were taken at high altitude.

An aurora is caused by the collision of electrons from space with atoms and molecules of gases (like oxygen and nitrogen) in the Earth's atmosphere, according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This collision results in a transfer of energy to the oxygen's electrons, and, as a result, quick bursts of light are emitted. A great number of these collisions create the light that's visible to the naked eye.

Click over to National Geographic to read more about Project Aether and see pictures of the weather balloons.