Here’s the kind of lights in the sky (or even in your home) where instead of oohing and aahing over them, you might actually be better served taking them as a sign to either get into cover or go outside.
“Earthquake lights” took many forms in the public imagination, most dismissed by scientists, until the 1960s, when a series of earthquakes in Nagano, Japan, were accompanied by strange lights in the sky that were caught on too many cameras to be dismissed.
Since then, geologists and seismologists have been seriously looking at the phenomenon, taking evidence into account (the security footage below, for example, was taken during a 2008 earthquake in Peru).
The form of the phenomenon tends to vary, with ball lightning, bluish flames, shimmering clouds and other kinds of lights being reported.
The authors of a 2014 study had to wade through an large number of reports from the 1600s onward, trying to sort out the legit sightings from the usual crop of conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts.
Their research included at least two valuable sightings in Canada, one from Quebec in the 1980s, and another from the Yukon in the 1970s. In both cases, earthquakes ensued after the lights in the sky were spotted.
The researchers managed to sort out the real sightings from the ridiculous ones, aided by increasing camera surveillance and credible eyewitness accounts the closer one gets to the present day.
They reckon that, when tectonic activity strikes certain strata made of basalt and gabbro, the stress interacts with certain defects to create electrical charges. In vertical faults, that can result in plasma generation, hence the lights.
Don’t expect the new research to lead to a breakthrough in earthquake prediction, though. Those same researchers reckon the phenomenon only occurs in 0.5 per cent of cases.
Falling space stations
Those folks in Nova Scotia at the top of the last page were lucky those lights in the sky weren’t a space station crashing to Earth.
When Skylab, the United States’ first true space station, was first launched in 1973, it was the scene of ground-breaking experiments, including advanced studies in Coronal Mass Ejections, among other things.
But it was never designed for re-entry, so when it was discovered that its orbit was actually decaying, and that a rude crash-landing was inevitable, NASA was scrambling to try and figure out a solution.
One of the country’s planned space shuttles was supposed to send up a special booster to get it up to a more favourable orbit, but the program was delayed, and the station didn’t have anything to hitch a lift on when it began entering the atmosphere in 1979.
NASA fired the station’s rockets to try guide its descent, aiming for the Indian ocean, and while it did mostly hit its mark (If you can’t hit an ocean from space, you shouldn’t be doing space science), quite a bit of debris tumbled down onto Australia.
No one was hurt, luckily, but people were understandably afraid of what would happen.
Much more organized was the fall of Mir, the Russian space station that spent 15 years in orbit, three times its intended life span.
This was a milestone of both science and international relations. Soviet and, later, Russian cosmonauts set new records for time spent living and working in space (one of them lived continuously on the station for 435 days). And after the break-up of the USSR, the station played host to American and European astronauts, a precursor to the international cooperation that would be the bedrock of the International Space Station.
All things come to an end. After 15 years, the station was a shambles, and as the International Space Station planning began to take shape, Russia decided to focus on the new station, and pulled the plug on Mir.
It fell from the skies over the Pacific Ocean in 2001, taking 30 minutes to hit the sea from when it entered the atmosphere (here’s footage of it hurtling over Fiji).
Its re-entry was relatively organized, despite some risk. By then, we guess you could say mankind had a bit of experience in deorbiting space stations.