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The Shuttle Red Aurora

By glowing red on Sunday night, April 12, 1981, the heavens over the United States displayed their pleasure with the successful flight of the shuttle Columbia. Perhaps because Columbia was up that night, more Americans than usual looked up at the sky and saw the red aurora that covered much of the nation, even as far south as Texas.

Unlike we northerners who are used to such sights, many Americans did not recognize the aurora for what it was. The Associated Press put out a story with conflicting statements about the event. Many observers thought the red light in the sky was caused by the shuttle's passage. Some thought the shuttle had crashed and caused the lights. Others offered explanations that included the coming of the Martians, the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.

The AP story even quoted a Tacoma, Washington, meteorologist as saying it must have been a display of noctilucent clouds because the aurora borealis doesn't travel east and west as parts of this display did, and, in fact, as most auroras do. I hope that fellow's weather predictions are better than his understanding of the Northern Lights.

Records taken at Fairbanks indicate that this unusual aurora actually began the night before the launching of the shuttle Columbia. An unusually large magnetic storm, the type of event that causes extensive red auroras, showed its signature at Fairbanks at about 3:00 am local time, Saturday morning, April 11. During the remainder of that night, bright, extensive auroras probably were seen in Alaska and western Canada. However, the most extensive auroras appeared Sunday night, and bright auroras also occurred on the few nights following.