Steamboat Springs Jimmy Westlake is getting national recognition for taking pictures of a natural light show that began when a billion-ton cloud of hot gas hit the earth's atmosphere.
Westlake shot pictures of the aurora borealis on Friday night and Saturday morning from just south of Hahn's Peak. One of the pictures is now posted on CNN.com, and two NASA sites, spaceweather.com and spacescience.com.
"It was the lead article on CNN's space page for 24 hours," he said.
Discovery.com also showed interest in posting the picture.
"I even got a call from an agent who wanted to represent me," Westlake said.
Westlake, who teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College, shot the pictures of the northern lights while on a camping trip with some of his students and friends.
They originally set out to watch the Perseid meteor shower. But early in the evening, Westlake realized his group was in for a special treat when he noticed the vague dancing lights of the aurora borealis. A night when the northern lights and a meteor shower can both be seen is a rare event, he said.
Though just a glimmer at first, the lights' most magnificent time, Westlake knew, would be around midnight.
"At 11:59 boom the sky exploded with all this stuff," he recalled.
The stuff Westlake referred to is billions of tons of hot gas that is expelled from the sun and enters the earth's atmosphere, creating vivid, waving color bands.
Every 11 years, the earth is bombarded by the gases that cause the northern lights. It happens because the sun is not a solid entity; it's made of gases, Westlake said. As it turns, the middle part of the sun's surface goes faster than the polls. In fact, the equator of the burning star takes 25 earth days to complete one turn, while the poles take 31 days.
"So the middle of the sun laps the poles," Westlake said.
As this happens, the magnetic field lines of the sun, which can be visualized like the blades of a egg beater running from pole to pole, follow the turning gases. That causes the field to move faster in the center and slower on the top.
"That makes the magnetic field lines get wound up like a rubber band," Westlake said.
Every 11 years, the field gets so tangled up that it bursts, like a balloon being twisted until it explodes. When that happens, energy and gas are released.
The gases that are expelled move about 600 miles a second, Westlake said.
That's a far cry from the 186,000 miles a second that light travels at, but it is fast enough to get the gases from the sun to the earth in a couple days.
The gases that caused the lights that Westlake photographed actually left the sun on Aug. 9.
When they arrived, the gases hit the earth's magnetic field, creating an electrical current. The current and the gasses were drug into the atmosphere at the north and south poles, creating the color in the sky.
Since the colors are actually gasses, the blue, green and red lights looks as if they are dancing, Westlake said.
"Still pictures beautiful, yes don't capture the motion," he said.
To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org