A rare sight was shown last Monday night. That sight was the Northern Lights, as many witnessed the lights far down in the southern states. According to USA today, there “have been sightings reported from Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and other places.” This rare occurrence usually happens in the Arctic regions, not the U.S.
The Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, are a often a beautiful sight to see. Pierre Gassendi, who titled them after the Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek word for the north wind, named the lights in 1621.
The auroras are a result of when energetic charged particles collide in the atmosphere. The particles originate in the geospace environment, frequently labeled as the magnetosphere. Most often these particles are electrons, but protons are also known to make auroras as well. As the particles skip along the magnetic field lines, they break through into the upper atmosphere.
According to the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, “The Earth’s magnetic field looks like that of a dipole magnet where the field lines are coming out and going into the Earth near the poles.” As a result, the atoms collide with the energetic particle and by stealing and storing it’s energy, it becomes an “excited” atom. The Institute states that an “excited atom or molecule can return to the non-excited state (ground state) by sending off a photon, i.e. by making light.”
The aurora borealis happens when the collisions are in the northern latitudes, while it’s southern partner, the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights, occur from high southern latitudes.
Monday night’s Northern Lights show marked itself as one of the farthest that has happened in years. Many residents were lucky enough to obtain shots of the beautiful lights. SpaceWeather.com stated that the event happened due to a “coronal mass ejection from the sun that hit Earth’s magnetic sphere.” Our orbiting satellites could have also been affected as well from the surprise outburst.
According to MSNBC, “Solar activity is on the upswing toward an expected peak of the sun’s 11-year cycle in 2013, and the past few months have been marked by strong auroral activity.” This increase in activity could mean big problems as the results could lead to a disturbance in Earth’s communication and power grids. So far nothing has happened.
So enjoy the show while it’s still there cause it may be years before another comes around.
Photos courtesy of Arctic Light, NASA, and Satoru Kikuchi.
Here is a quick video of an Aurora Borealis that was taken by NASA during a flyover on September 29, 2011.