Light Fantastic: Spectacular Aurora Displays Expected

Our Sun is the major source of light and energy within our solar system. It is a giant 4.6 billion year old ball of superheated gas (mostly Hydrogen). The Sun’s surface is a blistering 5,800 degrees Kelvin (~6,073 degrees Celsius). The surface of the Sun often shows regions which show up as dark patches. These are sunspots and are regions of intense magnetic activity. The number of sunspots visible on the surface of the sun is not constant but varies over a 11 year cycle known as the solar cycle.

Coronal_Mass_Ejection-STEREO_Science_Centre

A coronal mass ejection event. Picture courtesy of the STEREO Science Centre

Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections:
Sunspots are generally the regions where solar flares tend to originate from. These are sudden brightening of the Sun’s surface and due to a very large energy release and can result in a colossal coronal mass ejection (CME). CMEs are gigantic clouds of supercharged particles ejected by the Sun out into space.

These charged particles race towards the Earth and are can damage orbiting satellites. The charged particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to produce what we know as the aurora or the polar lights.

Spectacular Aurora Displays Expected:
Recently a giant sunspot (called AR1944, header picture) has appeared on the Sun’s surface and is expected to produce a large solar flare and CME. This could prove damaging for satellite communications and to spacecrafts. However it is also expected to produce a spectacular aurora display over the next few nights. Space weather scientists have predicted that aurora lights could be visible as far down as London and New York.

Aurora_Map_N-NOAA

Real time extents of Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) from NOAA.


Keep up to date:

The sunspot is undergoing constant monitoring and various website can inform you of the extent of the aurora and solar activity.

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website shows a real time extent of the aurora.
  • The British Geological Survey website shows real time solar activity.

I hope everyone gets to see some beautiful light shows over the coming nights. Please let us know if you do!

Ekbal

More information:
[1] http://spaceweather.com
[2] http://helios.swpc.noaa.gov/ovation
[3] http://www.geomag.bgs.ac.uk/data_service/space_weather/current_conditions.html