a dark horizon at night. in the sky are curtains of light in shades of purple, yellow, and green

Aurora borealis as seen at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on Apr. 23, 2023 | Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford | Full-size image, videos, and downloads

Have you ever taken a long hike, long enough to question the sweat and the ache in your side? Then you get to the summit, or the cliff's edge, or the waterfall, and you have to admit, ok, yes, I see.

After so many years of alarms going off at 2:30 in the morning, so many narrowly missed deer, so many gas station breakfasts, so many dirt roads in the dark — sometimes I get to say, Yes. I see.

On Apr. 21, 2023, an eruption on the surface of the Sun blasted a wave of particles into space. On Apr. 23 they arrived at Earth, where the planet's looping magnetic field caught them and guided them toward the poles. When the particles hit the air, they made it light up like a neon sign does, and for similar reasons.

This isn't unusual, and auroras are a common sight in Alaska or Iceland. But this particular storm was so powerful that actual bits of the Sun rained down all over the continent. As far south as Arizona, the sky appeared to ignite and shimmer, and I captured this view at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Every once in a while, you can glimpse auroras in Utah from places with the darkest, clearest skies. To the naked eye, they generally look like a diffuse gray glow, their colors only evident to a camera sensor. This was different. It wasn't as bright as it appears here, but you could clearly see the color and texture and movement. As for the camera, this show freaked it out entirely. I have actually toned the colors DOWN here.

It looked like a cathedral of colored glass in the sky. It reached from the horizon to the stars of the Big Dipper near the top of heaven's ceiling. It pulsed and danced. It looked like a curtain had been drawn back and the primal source of all miracles had been unveiled.

When I posted these images online for work, hundreds of thousands of people saw them. Some said it was the end of the world. Some people tagged the pictures for their friends and lovers, and said, hello, this made me think of you.

Shimmer - Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford