Auroral activity on Earth varies over time. As the magnetic poles drift, auroras can appear at different latitudes around the globe. Solar activity also affects them, with powerful solar storms pushing the auroras further into mid-latitudes.
In an effort to better understand how auroras move around, how they’ll move in the future, and when powerful solar storms might pose a threat, a team of researchers have tracked auroral activity for the last 3,000 years.
Vivid green and purple aurora swirled and danced across the entire night sky in Sweden recently. The nighttime light show was captured by an all-sky camera in Kiruna, Sweden, which is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Weather Service Network.
The ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ended four years ago. On September 30th 2016 the spacecraft was directed into a controlled impact with the comet, putting an end to its 12.5 year mission. Scientists are still working with all its data and making new discoveries.
A new study based on Rosetta data shows that Comet 67P has its own aurora.
Our eyes can’t see them, but Martian auroras are there, and more commonplace than we once thought. The Martian auroras were first discovered in 2016 by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. Now some new results are expanding our knowledge of these unusual auroras.
Scientists have known for some time that Earth’s atmosphere loses several hundred tons of oxygen each day. They understand how this oxygen loss happens on Earth’s night side, but they’re not sure how it happens on the day side. They do know one thing though; they happen during auroras.
Since time immemorial, people living in the Arctic Circle or the southern tip of Chile have looked up at the night sky and been dazzled by the sight of the auroras. Known as the Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south (the “Northern Lights” and “Southern Lights”, respectively) these dazzling displays are the result of interactions in the ionosphere between charged solar particles and the Earth’s magnetic field.
However, in recent decades, amateur photographers began capturing photos of what appeared to be a new type of aurora – known as STEVE. In 2016, it was brought to the attention of scientists, who began trying to explain what accounted for the strange ribbons of purple and white light in the night sky. According to a new study, STEVE is not an aurora at all, but an entirely new celestial phenomenon.
The study recently appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters under the title “On the Origin of STEVE: Particle Precipitation or Ionospheric Skyglow?“. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Department of Physics and Astronomy from the University of Calgary, which was led by Beatriz Gallardo-Lacourt (a postdoctoral associate), and included Yukitoshi Nishimura – an assistant researcher of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California.
STEVE first became known to scientists thanks to the efforts of the Alberta Aurora Chasers (AAC), who occasionally noticed these bright, thin streams of white and purple light running from east to west in the night sky when photographing the aurora. Unlike auroras, which are visible whenever viewing conditions are right, STEVE was only visible a few times a year and could only be seen at high latitudes.
Initially, the photographers thought the light ribbons were the result of excited protons, but these fall outside the range of wavelengths that normal cameras can see and require special equipment to image. The AAC eventually named the light ribbons “Steve” – a reference to the 2006 film Over the Hedge. By 2016, Steve was brought to the attention of scientists, who turned the name into a backronym for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
For their study, the research team analyzed a STEVE event that took place on March 28th, 2008, to see if it was produced in a similar fashion to an aurora. To this end, they considered previous research that was conducted using satellites and ground-based observatories, which included the first study on STEVE (published in March of 2018) conducted by a team of NASA-led scientists (of which Gallardo-Lacourt was a co-author).
This study indicated the presence of a stream of fast-moving ions and super-hot electrons passing through the ionosphere where STEVE was observed. While the research team suspected the two were connected, they could not conclusively state that the ions and electrons were responsible for producing it. Building on this, Gallardo-Lacourt and her colleagues analyzed the STEVE event that took place in March of 2008.
What they found was that the POES-17 satellite detected no charged particles raining down on the ionosphere during the event. This means that STEVE is not likely to be caused by the same mechanism as an aurora, and is therefore an entirely new type of optical phenomenon – which the team refer to as “skyglow”. As Gallardo-Lacourt explained in an AGU press release:
“Our main conclusion is that STEVE is not an aurora. So right now, we know very little about it. And that’s the cool thing, because this has been known by photographers for decades. But for the scientists, it’s completely unknown.”
Looking ahead, Galladro-Lacourt and her colleagues seek to test the conclusions of the NASA-led study. In short, they want to find out whether the streams of fast ions and hot electrons that were detected in the ionosphere are responsible for STEVE, or if the light is being produced higher up in the atmosphere. One thing is for certain though; for aurora chasers, evening sky-watching has become more interesting!
To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.
Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.
There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).
A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.
The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.
Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.
The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.
Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.
Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.
A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.
That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.
The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.
We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.
Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.
NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.
How would you like to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sun? NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip aboard the Parker Solar Probe mission that will launch this summer. As the spacecraft dips into the blazing hot solar corona your name will go along for the ride. To sign up, submit your name and e-mail. After a confirming e-mail, your digital “seat” will be booked. You can even print off a spiffy ticket. Submissions will be accepted until April 27, so come on down!
The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and named for Prof. Eugene Parker, a 90-year-old American astrophysicist who in 1958 discovered the solar wind. It’s the first time that NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. The Parker probe will launch between July 31 and August 19 but not immediately head for the Sun. Instead it will make a beeline for Venus for the first of seven flybys. Each gravity assist will slow the craft down and reshape its orbit (see below), so it later can pass extremely close to the Sun. The first flyby is slated for late September.
When heading to faraway places, NASA typically will fly by a planet to increase the spacecraft’s speed by robbing energy from its orbital motion. But a probe can also approach a planet on a different trajectory to slow itself down or reconfigure its orbit.
The spacecraft will swing well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come to the Sun before. When closest at just 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km), it will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona and be subjected to temperatures around 2,500°F (1,377°C). The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.
The vagaries of the solar wind, a steady flow of particles that “blows” from the Sun’s corona at more than million miles an hour, can touch Earth in beautiful ways as when it energizes the aurora borealis. But it can also damage spacecraft electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground. That’s why scientists want to know more about how the corona works, in particular why it’s so much hotter than the surface of the Sun — temperatures there are several million degrees.
As you can imagine, it gets really, really hot near the Sun, so you’ve got to take special precautions. To perform its mission, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will keep the four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and take pictures of the solar wind, all at room temperature.
Similar to how the Juno probe makes close passes over Jupiter’s radiation-fraught polar regions and then loops back out to safer ground, the Parker probe will make 24 orbits around the Sun, spending a relatively short amount of face to face time with our star. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be tearing along at about 430,000 mph, fast enough to get from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in under a minute, and will temporarily become the fastest manmade object. The current speed record is held by Helios-B when it swung around the Sun at 156,600 mph (70 km/sec) on April 17, 1976.
Many of you saw last August’s total solar eclipse and marveled at the beauty of the corona, that luminous spider web of light around Moon’s blackened disk. When closest to the Sun at perihelion the Parker probe will fly to within 9 solar radii (4.5 solar diameters) of its surface. That’s just about where the edge of the furthest visual extent of the corona merged with the blue sky that fine day, and that’s where Parker will be!
If you’re still riding that high from seeing the recent total solar eclipse and you want to keep the party going, now’s your chance to see another of the night sky’s wonders: an aurora. That said, a totally full Moon is going to try and wreck the party.
NASA announced that two powerful flares were just emitted on the surface of the Sun, casting coronal mass ejections in our direction. Over the course of the next couple of days, this should generate aurora activity in the sky outside the regular viewing areas. In other words, if you normally don’t see the Northern Lights where you live, you might want to spend a few hours outside tonight and tomorrow. Look up, you might see something.
The first flare, an X2.2 event, peaked on September 6 at 5:10 am EDT and the second X9.3 flare went off at 8:02 am. Both of which came from the sunspot group AR 2673. If you’ve still got those eclipse glasses, take a look at the Sun, and you should be able to see the sunspot group right now. There are two groups of sunspots close to one another, AR 2673 and AR 2674. This follows up the X4 flare emitted on September 4th.
Solar astronomers measure flares using a similar scale to other natural events, with a series of designations. The smallest are A-class, then B, C, M and finally X. Each level within the rating accounts for double the strength; it’s exponential. So, and X2 is twice as powerful as an X1, etc. The most powerful flare ever recorded was an X28 in 2003, so today’s flare is still comparatively weak to that monster.
But, measuring in at X9.3, today’s flare is the strongest in almost a decade. The last one this strong was back in 2008. And NOAA is predicting that this flare could cause radio blackouts across the sun-facing side of the Earth. If you’re out at sea and depending on your radio transmissions, don’t be surprised if you’re getting a lot of static today.
How do you stand the best chance of seeing auroras? My favorite tool comes from NOAA’s 3-day aurora forecast. It shows you a 3-day predictive simulation for what the solar storm should do as it buffets the Earth’s magnetosphere. You can run the simulation backwards and forwards, and you’re looking glowing green areas to come across your part of the world.
But even if it doesn’t look like you’re going to see the auroras, I still think it’s worth trying. Even if you don’t get an aurora directly overhead, you can sometimes see it on the horizon, and it can be surprisingly beautiful.
Here’s my timelapse video of auroras on the horizon.
The big problem, of course, is the Moon. Tonight is also a full Moon, which means that awful glowing ball is going to rise just after sunset and blaze across the sky all night. You’re going to have a rough time seeing all but the brightest auroras. But I still think it’s worth trying.
If you want to maximize your chances of seeing an aurora, check out the Space Weather site on a regular basis. There are also services that’ll send you a text message when there’s a powerful aurora going on in your area (just Google “aurora alert text messages”. And of course, there are handy apps that’ll make your phone beep boop when there are auroras overhead. I use an app called Aurora Alert.
We’ve had three powerful flares in the last couple of days, which means that the Sun is feeling a little frisky. There could be more, and they could happen after the full Moon is over, and we’ve got some alone time with the dark sky. So stay on top of the current space weather, spend time outside, and keep your eyes on the sky. You might get a shot at seeing an aurora.
This remarkable image was captured last fall by Dave Markel, a photographer based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Later, aurora researcher Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary, discovered Markel’s strange ribbon of light while looking through photos of the northern lights on social media. Knowing he’d found something unusual, Donovan worked sifted through data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission to try and understand the nature of the phenomenon.
Launched on 22 November 2013, three identical Swarm satellites orbit the Earth measuring the magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Speaking at the recent Swarm science meeting in Canada, Donovan explained how this new finding couldn’t have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.
While the shimmering, eerie, light display of auroras might be beautiful and captivating, they’re also a visual reminder that Earth is connected electrically and magnetically to the Sun. The more we know about the aurora, the greater our understanding of that connection and how it affects everything from satellites to power grids to electrically-induced corrosion of oil pipelines.
“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground,” said Prof. Donovan. “Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”
And that’s where sharing photos and observations on social media can play an important role. Sites like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and Aurorasaurus serve as clearinghouses for observers to report auroral displays. Aurorasaurus connects citizen scientists to scientists and searches Twitter feeds for instances of the word ‘aurora,’ so skywatchers and scientists alike know the real-time extent of the auroral oval.
At a recent talk, Prof. Donovan met members the popular Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers. Looking at their photos, he came across the purple streak Markel and others had photographed which they’d been referring to as a “proton arc.” But such a feature, caused by hydrogen emission in the upper atmosphere, is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Donovan knew it was something else, but what?Someone suggested “Steve.” Hey, why not?
While the group kept watch for the Steve’s return, Donovan and colleagues looked through data from the Swarm mission and his network of all-sky cameras. Before long he was able to match a ground sighting of streak to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.
“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” said Donovan.
“The temperature 186 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/second compared to a speed of about 10 meters/second either side of the ribbon. A friend of mine compared it to a fluorescent light without the glass.
It turns out that these high-speed “rivers” of glowing auroral gas are much more common than we’d thought, and that in no small measure because of the efforts of an army of skywatchers and aurora photographers who keep watch for that telltale green glow in the northern sky.
I spoke to Steve’s keeper, Dave Markel, via e-mail yesterday and he described what the arc looked like to his eyes:
“It’s similar to the image just not as intense. It looks like a massive contrail moving rapidly across the sky. This one lasted almost an hour and ran in an arc almost perfectly east to west. I was directly below it but often there are green pickets (parallel streaks of aurora) rising above the streak.”
I know whereof Dave speaks because thanks to his photo and Prof. Donovan’s research, I realize I’ve seen and photographed Steve, too! In decades of aurora watching I’ve only seen this rare streak a handful of times. On most of those occasions, there was either no other aurora visible or minor activity in the northern sky. The narrow arc, which lasted for an hour or so, pulsed and flowed with light and occasionally, Markel’s “pickets” were visible. Back in May 1990 I had a camera on hand to get a picture.
Goes to show, you never know what you might see when you poke your head out for a look. Keep a lookout when aurora’s expected and maybe you’ll get to meet Steve, too.