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Solar Pillar: Earth Image of the Week September 2, 2011
MODIS image of the Pacific Northwest.
A column of flat ice crystals being illuminated by the setting sun over Ontario during early June.
A scene seemingly out of a sci-fi movie presented itself outside Rick Stankiewicz’s car window as he drove across the Canadian province of Ontario in early June.

But being a member of the Peterborough Astronomical Association, Stankiewicz knew immediately that the shaft of crimson light apparently beaming from below the horizon had a very natural explanation.

The eerie and beautiful solar pillar seen in the photo to the right was created due to a cold atmosphere aloft, which allowed flat six-sided ice crystals to form.

When the crystals fell from high-level clouds, air resistance caused them to lie nearly flat as they fluttered to the ground.

Light from the setting sun struck the crystals, creating an unusual but not entirely rare column of light.

Such pillars can be caused by the rising or setting sun, as well as the moon or terrestrial sources of light like street lamps.

Here are other examples of solar pillars photographed at various locations around the world, presented by NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Image: Rick Stankiewicz - Peterborough Astronomical Association