News from the Universe

I did not expect to see auroras in the Seattle area. Or ever in my life without a special bucket-list effort I had no particular intention of making. Though now I might. It feels a bit like I’ve just seen giraffes in the wild without going to Africa.

You’ve probably seen some of the thousands of photos being posted online. My wife’s contribution to the global photo collection is below. This is probably the most widely photographed geomagnetic storm in history, and it’s amazing how much better the latest phone cameras are than the naked eye. The photo is far more dramatic than it looked naked-eyed. It was still pretty great live though.

This is a rare example of news from the universe. Not counting predictable events like eclipses and periodic comets, or events manufactured by humans via space missions, actual news from beyond our planet is rare. This unexpected aurora treat belongs on a very short list of newsworthy events from beyond our planet in my life so far:

  1. Auroras 2024
  2. Betelgeuse dimming in 2019
  3. The Oumuamua visit in 2017
  4. Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter in 1994

If you disregard telescopic events, only 2 of these count. The universe is a pretty uneventful place from the perspective of our blink of an existence in it so far. Only a few naked-eye supernovas have ever been observed in all recorded human history. I’d like to witness one but I’m not hopeful.

To turn it around, so far the existence of humanity has not registered on the rest of the universe at all either. We don’t get much news out here on our backwater planet, and aren’t newsworthy on any meaningful cosmic scale yet.

“Mostly harmless” indeed.

Or here is another bit of perspective: I’ve experienced 4 extraplanetary news events in just under 50 years of life. Which means in a typical human life you can expect maybe 7. Up to maybe 10 if you live long during a particularly eventful blink of the universe’s eye. If you witnessed auroras this week, there’s a good chance this is the peak for you. You’re stuck on this boring planet where basically nothing ever happens on interesting cosmic scales.

Worse: this lifetime highlight bit of cosmic news is weather news. We don’t get headline stuff out here.

I learned that NASA runs a space weather service with exciting 30-minute updates. Mostly about local sun. And that I mostly saw high-altitude oxygen emission radiation. I saw mostly red with some green. I saved this chart from some random tweet. (Source: alienyrox2 on Reddit it seems; ht Crul in the comments).

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. It seems like there has been at least one other noteworthy geomagnetic storm in your lifetime. Less photographed for sure, but perhaps at least as consequential. In particular, I remember hearing about the Quebec power outage caused by a 1989 geomagnetic storm.

Leave a Comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.