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Fly to the heart of the Southern Lights

By Kara Segedin

The first ever charter flight to see the Southern Lights took off from Dunedin, New Zealand, carrying 130 stargazers, photographers, and curious onlookers for a unique view of Aurora Australis.

Flight to the Lights by Stephen Voss

Flying above the clouds at 38,000 feet, passengers were treated to an incredible light show rivalling some of the best displays ever witnessed in the northern hemisphere.

The driving force behind the flight was museum director, and Aurora Australis enthusiast, Ian Griffin.

Griffin came up with the idea to charter a ‘Flight to the Lights’ following ride on NASA’s aircraft-based observatory SOFIA. Working with Air New Zealand and a local travel agent, Griffin pitched the idea to the local Aurora watching community and within five days the all the seats were sold out.

Like its better-known cousin Aurora Borealis, the Aurora Australis occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun enter Earth's atmosphere at a sweet-spot known as the "Aurora Oval".

“They are basically mirror images of each other,” says Griffin. “If you can get into that zone you will see an aurora.”

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Aurora Oval is mostly over land, but in the Southern Hemisphere it falls over a remote area of ocean – roughly 2.5-hours’ flight from New Zealand.

Half an hour into the flight, passengers were treated to an incredible light show. While the camera captures the aurora in a familiar eerie shade of green, says Griffin, to the human eye it appears as brilliant white curtains and oscillating bands of light.

Photographer and Earth Capture contributor Mark Gee was onboard to host an in-flight astrophotography class.

"I have spent time in Norway, so have seen the Aurora Borealis in all it's glory, but I've never seen a good showing of the Aurora Australis and I have to say I certainly wasn't disappointed!" He says.

Griffin moved to New Zealand from the UK four years ago. A week after his arrival in Dunedin, while eating fish and chips on the beach with his son, Griffin was treated to one of the best displays of the Southern Lights he had ever seen.

“From that moment on I was kind of hooked,” he says. “I became a bit of an aurora addict."

Featured image by Mark Gee

Inspired by these incredible night sky shots? Why not share yours with Earth Capture to feature on BBC Earth!

By Kara Segedin