David Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, was going about business as usual yesterday afternoon when he suddenly heard an outburst of astonished voices. "People were saying, You gotta come out and see this," he recalls.
Hathaway followed the commotion out into the parking lot of his office in Huntsville, Alabama, and saw this: the apparent high-beams of an alien death-cruiser barreling down on Earth. The old, familiar sun had changed dramatically since the morning, encircling itself with an armada of burning arcs, orbs and halos. Hathaway ran to get his camera, aimed it into the sky – was curtly told to stop propping his arm on a random dude's car – and captured this incredible scene in glorious HDR.
Hathaway was familiar with sun dogs, and would spend the rest of the day reading about other solar phenomena like 22-degree halos, parhelic circles and upper tangent arcs. "Individually, they're infrequent," he says. "And we saw all of them."
As NASA's Tony Phillips notes at the great site Space Weather, the highly unusual light show was probably caused by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy. The mega-storm had seeded Alabama's higher atmosphere with ice crystals, which were angled to bend the sun's rays into a freaky, geometrically precise cathedral of light. According to one NASA employee that Phillips contacted, the spectacle was a "once-in-a-decade event" for Huntsville.
And Hathaway says he was glad to be there to witness it. "It was a once in a lifetime event," says the physicist. "That's the way I felt and I still feel."