March 14 Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2022 March 13

Colorful Airglow Bands Surround Milky Way

Image Credit & Copyright: Xiaohan Wang

Explanation: Why would the sky glow like a giant repeating rainbow? Airglow. Now air glows all of the time, but it is usually hard to see. A disturbance however — like an approaching storm — may cause noticeable rippling in the Earth’s atmosphere. These gravity waves are oscillations in air analogous to those created when a rock is thrown in calm water. Red airglow likely originates from OH molecules about 87-kilometers high, excited by ultraviolet light from the Sun, while orange and green airglow is likely caused by sodium and oxygen atoms slightly higher up. While driving near Keluke Lake in Qinghai Provence in China a few years ago, the photographer originally noticed mainly the impressive central band of the Milky Way Galaxy. Stopping to photograph it, surprisingly, the resulting sensitive camera image showed airglow bands to be quite prominent and span the entire sky. The featured image has been digitally enhanced to make the colors more vibrant.