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Earth's atmosphere lights up with airglow in time-lapse video

Reds, yellows, and greens seen in the Earth's atmosphere are created by different chemical and nuclear processes called airglow. A new time-lapse video captures these colors and more.

Photo capturing the Earth's airglow. Alex Rivest

A little known fact about the Earth is that its atmosphere generates its own light. Lines and clouds in hues of yellow, green, blue, and red reach 60 miles above the surface of the planet.

This light is created in what's known as a chemiluminescent process and is called "airglow" or "night glow," according to videographer and scientist Alex Rivest. "The colors are not reflected light, and not pollution, but rather are light generated from the components in the atmosphere itself," he wrote in a blog post.

Rivest has just released a new time-lapse video (see below) and blog post exploring these colors in the atmosphere and why they exist. All of the footage he used is from images and videos that NASA scientists took while orbiting the Earth and are available at NASA's Image Science & Analysis Laboratory.

"Even on a moonless night, away from any city lights, you can still see your hand," Rivest wrote in the blog post. "A star-filled night sky is 10 times brighter with airglow than without it."

Different chemical and nuclear processes create all of the colors seen in airglow, according to Rivest. For example, yellow is made when meteors break up the atmosphere and radiate sodium atoms, while red is created from excited ozone and hydrogen radicals, or atomic oxygen.

The video also has shots of auroras with bright green waves of light -- these are different than airglow and are created when the sun's charged particles collide with the Earth's upper atmosphere.

Here is Rivest's time-lapse video showing the Earth's airglow and auroras: