The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis

An aurora is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere). The charged particles originate in the magnetosphere and solar wind and, on Earth, are directed by the Earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. Most aurorae occur in a band known as the auroral zone, which is typically 3° to 6° in latitudinal extent and at all local times or longitudes. The auroral zone is typically 10° to 20° from the magnetic pole defined by the axis of the Earth’s magnetic dipole. During a geomagnetic storm, the auroral zone expands to lower latitudes.
 

In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621.

Auroras seen near the magnetic pole may be high overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Discrete aurorae often display magnetic field lines or curtain-like structures, and can change within seconds or glow unchanging for hours, most often in fluorescent green.

Its southern counterpart, the aurora australis (or the southern lights), has features that are almost identical to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone. It is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, South America, New Zealand, and Australia.
Aurora timelapse:-
 

What is happening?

The auroras, both surrounding the north magnetic pole (aurora borealis) and south magnetic pole (aurora australis) occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth’s atmosphere. Solar winds stream away from the sun at speeds of about 1 million miles per hour. When they reach the earth, some 40 hours after leaving the sun, they follow the lines of magnetic force generated by the earth’s core and flow through the magnetosphere, a teardrop-shaped area of highly charged electrical and magnetic fields.

­As the electrons enter the earth’s upper atmosphere, they will encounter atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at altitudes from 20 to 200 miles above the earth’s surface. The colour of the aurora depends on which atom is struck, and the altitude of the meeting.

  • Green – oxygen, up to 150 miles in altitude
  • Red – oxygen, above 150 miles in altitude
  • Blue – nitrogen, up to 60 miles in altitude
  • Purple/violet – nitrogen, above 60 miles in altitude

All of the magnetic and electrical forces react with one another in constantly shifting combinations. These shifts and flows can be seen as the auroras “dance,” moving along with the atmospheric currents that can reach 20,000,000 amperes at 50,000 volts.

Structure of the Magnetosphere
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Posted on October 11, 2013, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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