Thanks to our dynamic core, Earth is wrapped in a magnetic sheath that protects the planet from harmful cosmic radiation. Called the magnetosphere, this sheath is normally invisible to human eyes—except near the planet’s poles, where shimmering, eerie lights in the nighttime skies betray its presence.
Called auroras, these dancing lights intensify when the sun hurls a particularly large volley of charged particles at Earth, which then collide with atoms in the planet’s atmosphere and produce a dazzling array of colors. (Here's how Canadian photographers discovered a whole new type of aurora.)
An aurora’s colors depend on what kind of atom cosmic particles smash into. Collide with an oxygen atom at high altitude, and it produces a red color, while lower altitude oxygen glows green. Molecular nitrogen yields red, occasionally blue, and possibly purple. Altogether, the twisting curtain-like sheets of light betray how rays of spiraling electrons align with Earth’s magnetic field.
For many space enthusiasts, these manifestations of our planet’s magnetic shield are best viewed from Iceland.
“I wanted to go to this place that evoked so much otherworldly aspirations … and see the northern lights, at nighttime, in this big volcanic landscape that looks like the moon,” says Robert Ormerod, a U.K.-based photographer.
Steam from geothermal activity softens the aurora-filled sky over Iceland.
The island country in the North Atlantic is a land of rugged lava fields, glaciers, geothermal oddities, and black sand beaches. Its seemingly alien terrain has appeared on screen in Prometheus, Interstellar, several Star Wars films, and Game of Thrones—and it just gets weirder when the sky overhead is pulsing in vibrant hues.
Ormerod traveled to Iceland as part of a project that, he hopes, will illuminate the lives of people who are fascinated by the cosmos and might yearn to journey to the stars, but like the vast majority of us, will never have that chance.
“What happens to the people who don’t let go of the dream and also can’t become an astronaut? Where do they go with this passion?” he says.
Among his subjects are people participating in Mars simulations, those who are enthralled with the search for intelligent alien civilizations, and amateur rocketeers. And then there are the aurora hunters, who go to extremes to witness the ethereal cosmic lights.
“For me, it’s another form of space enthusiasm: Look how beautiful it is, look how small we are, look at this otherworldly thing that happens,” he says. “It’s almost like outer space coming to you.”
Ormerod visited the island last year to photograph not only the northern skies, but also Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson, who runs the Icelandic Museum of Exploration. Örlygsson owns a replica of an Apollo-era spacesuit and has been instrumental in bringing Apollo astronauts back to the island where they once trained to walk on the moon.
On that trip, Ormerod also traveled the island’s Ring Road and met up with a pair of aurora-hunting brothers who were engineers by day and sky-watchers by night. That was when he saw his first aurora.
“It was a pretty amazing moment. I was blown away,” he recalls. “And they were like, That’s nothing.”
The next night, Ormerod almost didn’t go out when the brothers came to grab him; he was tired from the trip and from shooting the night before. But he was rewarded for venturing beyond the van in which he slept: the celestial light show was even more impressive. During the most intense parts, Ormerod didn’t attempt to capture the natural display. He just put down his camera and watched.
“It looked like nothing I’ve seen in photographs before,” he says. “It made these shapes in the sky, like spiders, crawling all across the night sky. It looked kind of like aliens invading. It was crazy.”