If you stepped outside last night to let the dogs out or if you are a night owl/early riser you may have been stunned by the brilliant beams of light that seemed to come from space. Your imagination might think "aliens.. yep, they're finally coming", but the actual reason is easily explainable by science.

The National Weather Service office in Billings shared a social media post of the multi-colored beams of light shining from behind their west-end offices just after midnight early Wednesday morning. The phenomenon is called "light pillars", and they can sometimes occur when it's really cold out and the air is calm in the lower atmosphere. With the right conditions, ice crystals that are suspended in the air trap and reflect lights coming from the ground.  A co-worker said he saw them this morning around 4 am as well.

The bigger the ice crystals, the more dramatic the display.

ScienceABC.com says that larger and denser ice crystals floating in the air usually cause the beams to be brighter and more pronounced. They add,

The light sources involved could be street lights and other ground light sources, or even the sun or moonlight. The angle of the ice crystal surfaces will deviate a few degrees from the horizontal orientation, which causes the light pillar, as it elongates the reflection of light. Thus, these phenomena usually appear as columns of lights to an observer.

So, not aliens. Not this time.

Photo by Nick Brown, used with permission
Photo by Nick Brown, used with permission

If you can't see the Northern Lights, these are the next best thing.

It's rare to get dramatic views of the Northern Lights in the southern side of Montana, but these light pillars are almost as cool and for me, they evoke an almost eerie feeling. Billings resident Nick Brown shared the photo above on the NWS post and told me that it appeared the whole town was covered with them last night (2/23). If it's not windy tonight, it might be another great chance to see them for yourself.

If you've got a night-sky picture, share it in the comments or email to Michael.Foth@TownsquareMedia.com. Thank you NWS Billings for posting the pictures.

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