Lunar light pillar over Antarctica

We see a fair number of photos of light pillars – shafts of light extending from the sun or other bright light source – taken from northerly latitudes. This one is caused by the moon, and it’s over Earth’s South Pole.

Night background, bright moon, with a shaft of light extending to snowy ground.

Light pillar extending from the moon, by D. Michalik/NSF/SPT.

The European Space Agency (ESA) released this beautiful image to the public on January 21, 2019. Taken by Daniel Michalik, a research fellow at ESA, it was a winner in the astronomy category in the Royal Society photography competition in 2017. It shows what’s called a light pillar.

Light pillars are caused by ice crystals drifting in Earth’s air. This particular light pillar has every reason to exist. It’s over the coldest place on Earth – Antarctica – in fact, the South Pole. There, ESA said:

… the dry, cold conditions allow for observations of a number of rare celestial phenomena that are seen far less often elsewhere. The sight captured beautifully here by Daniel is a good example of such a phenomenon: a light pillar.

The moon illuminates a column of bright light between it and the frozen plateau below, creating a scene akin to a dramatic lunar spotlight beaming downwards. This is caused by moonlight reflecting from and refracting through ice crystals suspended in our planet’s atmosphere, producing a diffuse, eerie glow …

Read more about this photo via ESA

Read more about what makes light pillars

More photos and explanation at Les Cowley’s website, Atmospheric Optics

Bottom line: An award-winning photo of a light pillar – made by the moon – over the South Pole.

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Deborah Byrd