The northern lights are the pinnacle of atmospheric phenomena to observe.
The aurora borealis, often known as the northern lights, is a spectacular display of dancing light that has mesmerized observers for centuries. Although stunning to see, this light show is rather dangerous.
Sun-energized particles may reach speeds of 45 million mph (72 million kph) when they smash into Earth’s upper atmosphere, yet our planet’s magnetic field shields us from their attack.
The dramatic process becomes a cinematic, atmospheric phenomenon when Earth’s magnetic field reroutes the particles toward the poles (there are also southern lights, which you can read about below).
Projects aurora is the platform that converts keyboards or other panels into distinctive colored colors, allowing users to comprehend and operate the various aspects of the system using color visualization.
Revealing the Northern Lights History
Aurora borealis was named by Italian scientist Galileo Galilei in 1619 after the Roman deity of origin, Aurora, and the Greek god of the northern breeze, Boreas. However, the earliest known record of the lights of the north is a cave painting in France that dates back 30,000 years.
Since then, people worldwide have marveled at the dazzling lights in the sky and come up with all sorts of theories about where they came from. Light bouncing off the armor of the Valkyrie, the magical maidens who transported warriors into the afterlife, is what the Vikings believed caused the northern lights. At the same time, a North American Inuit legend(opens in new tab) attributes them to ghosts playing ball with a walrus head.
At the start of the twentieth century, scientists began to postulate about the physics behind the northern lights. According to the theory of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, electrons ejected by sunspots would cause the atmospheric lights after being directed toward the poles by Earth’s magnetic field. In the end, the notion was correct, although it was after Birkeland’s death in 1917 before anybody noticed.
What are the Northern Lights?
The solar wind is always generated by the Sun’s constant release of charged particles from its corona, or upper air. The aurora is created when this wind collides with Earth’s ionosphere. The phenomenon is recognized as the northern lights in the North Hemisphere and the southern lights (solstice arc) in the Southern Hemisphere (aurora australis).
According to Vanderbilt University astronomer Billy Teets, director of the Dyer Observatory, “these particles are directed to the poles of Earth by our planet’s magnetic field and interrelate by air, depositing energy and causing the atmosphere to glow.”
The chemical makeup of Earth’s atmosphere determines the vibrant hues of the northern lights.
Like humans, “any form of atom or particle, whether it’s atomic hydrogen or a particle-like carbon dioxide, engrosses and radiates its own unique set of colors,” as Teets said to Space.com. Red, a hue created by the nitrogen molecules, and green, a dye produced by the oxygen molecules, are two of the most prominent shades visible in aurorae.
Even though the solar wind is always there, the Sun’s emissions fluctuate through cycles of around 11 years. There are periods of relative calm, and then there are the massive storms that rain down unimaginable quantities of energy on Earth. The northern lights are at their most spectacular and frequent around this time. According to American records, the Sun’s latest maximum, or time of most significant activity, was in 2014. According to the NOAA (opens in new window) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the next one won’t happen until 2025.
Stars in the North, Stars in the South, and Steve
The southern lights are Earth’s equivalent to the northern lights; they are identical in appearance but for their geographic position in the southern hemisphere. So, scientists anticipate both phenomena to occur concurrently during a solar storm, but occasionally one event precedes the other.
One of the most challenging features of nightside aurorae, according to Steven Petrinec, a physicist at Lockheed Martin who concentrates in magnetospheric and heliospheric physics, is comparing the aurora borealis with the aurora australis.
Petrinec told Space.com that “while some auroral releases occur in both hemispheres at the same magnetic native time, other releases appear in opposing segments in the two hemispheres at different times,” such as before midnight in the Northern Hemisphere and after midnight in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the Sun’s magnetic field affects Earth’s magnetic field, which contributes to the aurora’s hemisphere asymmetry(opens in new tab).
STEVE is another phenomenon resembling an aurora on Earth (“Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement”). STEVE is a brilliant atmospheric phenomenon, similar to the aurora borealis in both the north and south, but with a somewhat distinct appearance. In most cases, these emissions are purple in hue and have a green picket-fence structure that progressively travels westward, as described by Petrinec.
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Planetary Auroras (AURORAS)
An atmosphere and a magnetic field are the only things needed to create an aurora. Thus auroras may exist on other worlds as well.
Professor of physics and astronomy at North Carolina’s High Point University, Jeff Regester, has observed auroras in the exospheres of all the gas giant planets. This is no surprise, given that all these planets have strong magnetic fields. Even more unexpectedly, auroras have been found on Venus and Mars, two worlds with fragile magnetic fields.
Indeed, three distinct Martian aurora forms have been identified and classified by astronomers. One is a nocturnal phenomenon that only happens on the planet’s dark side, another is a global occurrence that occurs throughout the night and is powered by powerful solar storms, and the third is a much patchier phenomenon that occurs during the dark side of the planet.
The Hope Mars orbiter, the first space mission from the United Arab Emirates, arrived at the Red Planet in early 2021 and captured images of the planet’s faint nightly aurora. Science may benefit from the probe’s observations of this puzzling phenomenon.
The auroras on Jupiter are 20,000 times brighter than those on Earth because Jupiter has a much stronger magnetic field. In addition to the solar wind, Jupiter’s close-orbiting moon, the most volcanic body in the cosmic scheme, is responsible for ejecting most of the particles that create the planet’s auroras into space.