When we see patterns in the atmosphere from space, they tend to be in the clouds of powerful storms. These all have roughly the same form: they look like a spiral galaxy with arms spinning out from the core.
But meteorologists have detected other organizational principles at work. Like, take the fascinating image above. It shows .... well, I wasn't sure exactly what it showed. A meteorologist's blog post described them as "convectively-generated mesospheric airglow waves," but that did not quite explain how they worked or what they were.
So I got in touch with Steven Miller, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA) at Colorado State University. Miller and his colleagues discovered these concentric rings while working with the newish satellite Suomi satellite's next-generation low-light sensor. (They published a paper on the discovery in PNAS.)
Miller told me I was looking at glowing ripples in the atmosphere itself!
"These are literally 'ripples of glowing atmosphere' whose structure is the result of a train of gravity waves that is passing through a thin layer of the atmosphere that produces a very faint veil of light called 'nightglow,'" he said. "These are not clouds (although they were forced by the thunderstorms below), and they do not occur in the troposphere, where our 'weather' is. They are much higher up—at the interface between the mesosphere and the thermosphere—about 90 km [55 miles] above the surface! The glow is revealing important dynamics of our atmosphere that would otherwise be completely invisible to us."