Aurora Borealis

If you’re ever near the North or South Pole, you may be in for a very special treat. Frequently there are beautiful light shows in the sky. These lights are called auroras. If you’re near the North Pole, it is called an aurora borealis or northern lights. If you’re near the South Pole, it is called an aurora australis or the southern lights.

For the best seats to this celestial scene, consider anywhere with a magnetic latitude above 55° and low light pollution.

The sun sends us more than heat and light; it sends lots of other energy and small particles our way. The protective magnetic field around Earth shields us from most of the energy and particles, and we don’t even notice them. But the sun doesn’t send the same amount of energy all the time. There is a constant streaming solar wind and there are also solar storms. During one kind of solar storm called a coronal mass ejection, the sun burps out a huge bubble of electrified gas that can travel through space at high speeds.

Near equinoxes in March and September, the Earth’s magnetic field lets more solar particles interact with the atmosphere, creating aurora seasons!

When a solar storm comes toward us, some of the energy and small particles can travel down the magnetic field lines at the north and south poles into Earth’s atmosphere.

What causes the Aurora Borealis?

At the center of the sun, the temperature is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius). As the temperature on its surface rises and falls, the sun boils and bubbles. Particles escape from the star from the sunspot regions on the surface, hurtling particles of plasma, known as solar wind, into space. It takes these winds around 40 hours to reach Earth. When they do, they can cause the dramatic displays known as the aurora borealis.