The Northern and Southern Lights – What is an Aurora?

For many people around the world the ability to see the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis is a rare treat. Unless you live north of 60° latitude (or south of -60°), or who have made the trip to tip of Chile or the Arctic Circle at least once in their lives, these fantastic light shows are something you’ve likely only read about or seen a video of.

But on occasion, the “northern” and “southern lights” have reached beyond the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and dazzled people with their stunning luminescence. But what exactly are they? To put it simply, auroras are natural light displays that take place in the night sky, particularly in the Polar Regions, and which are the result of interaction in the ionosphere between the sun’s rays and Earth’s magnetic field.


Basically, solar wind is periodically launched by the sun which contains clouds of plasma, charged particles that include electrons and positive ions. When they reach the Earth, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, which excites oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. During this process, ionized nitrogen atoms regain an electron, and oxygen and nitrogen atoms return from an excited state to ground state.

High-speed particles from the Sun, mostly electrons, strike oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA
High-speed particles from the Sun, mostly electrons, strike oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon of light, or by collision with another atom or molecule. Different gases produce different colors of light – light emissions coming from oxygen atoms as they interact with solar radiation appear green or brownish-red, while the interaction of nitrogen atoms cause light to be emitted that appears blue or red.

This dancing display of colors is what gives the Aurora its renowned beauty and sense of mystery. In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the Aurora Borealis, named after the Roman Goddess of the dawn (Aurora) and the Greek name for the north wind (Boreas). It was the French scientist Pierre Gassendi who gave them this name after first seeing them in 1621.

In the southern latitudes, it is known as Aurora Australis, Australis being the Latin word for “of the south”. 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. The auroras are usually best seen in the Arctic and Antarctic because that is the location of the poles of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The South Pole Telescope under the aurora australis (southern lights). Photo by Keith Vanderlinde
The South Pole Telescope under the aurora australis (southern lights). Credit: Keith Vanderlinde

Names and Cultural Significance:

The northern lights have had a number of names throughout history and a great deal of significance to a number of cultures. The Cree call this phenomenon the “Dance of the Spirits”, believing that the effect signaled the return of their ancestors.

To the Inuit, it was believed that the spirits were those of animals. Some even believed that as the auroras danced closer to those who were watching them, that they would be enveloped and taken away to the heavens. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the auroras were commonly believed to be a sign from God.

According to the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá (ca. 1230 CE), the first encounter of the norðrljós (Old Norse for “northern light”) amongst the Norsemen came from Vikings returning from Greenland. The chronicler gives three possible explanations for this phenomena, which included the ocean being surrounded by vast fires, that the sun flares reached around the world to its night side, or that the glaciers could store energy so that they eventually glowed a fluorescent color.

Auroras on Other Planets:

However, Earth is not the only planet in the Solar System that experiences this phenomena. They have been spotted on other Solar planets, and are most visible closer to the poles due to the longer periods of darkness and the magnetic field.

Saturn Aurora
Image of Saturn’s aurora taken by the Huddle Space Telescope and seen in ultraviolet wavelengths. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

For example. the Hubble Space Telescope has observed auroras on both Jupiter and Saturn – both of which have magnetic fields much stronger than Earth’s and extensive radiation belts. Uranus and Neptune have also been observed to have auroras which, same as Earth, appear to be powered by solar wind.

Auroras also have been observed on the surfaces of Io, Europa, and Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope, not to mention Venus and Mars. Because Venus has no planetary magnetic field, Venusian auroras appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed across the full planetary disc.

An aurora was also detected on Mars on August 14th, 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express. This aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria, in the region of 177° East, 52° South, and was estimated to be quite sizable – 30 km across and 8 km high (18.5 miles across and 5 miles high).

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA
Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

Though Mars has little magnetosphere to speak of, scientists determined that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized on the planet. This they concluded by analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor.

More recently, an aurora was observed on Mars by the MAVEN mission, which captured images of the event on March 17th, 2015, just a day after an aurora was observed here on Earth. Nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights”, they were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and (owing to the lack of oxygen and nitrogen in Mars’ atmosphere) were likely a faint glow compared to Earth’s more vibrant display.

In short, it seems that auroras are destined to happen wherever solar winds and magnetic fields coincide. But somehow, knowing this does not make them any less impressive, or diminish the power they have to inspire wonder and amazement in all those that behold them.

We have written many articles about Aurorae here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Aurora Borealis?, What is the Aurora Australis?, What Causes an Aurora?, Your Guide to When, Where, and How to see the Aurora Borealis, Northern and Southern Lights are Siblings, not Twins.

and See the Latest Jaw-Dropping Aurora Views from the ISS.

If you’d like more info on the aurora, check out Space Weather Center, and here’s a link to some amazing Aurora Borealis pictures taken from Alaska.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Aurora. Listen here, Episode 163: Auroras.


Man-Made Aurora Will Help to Better Predict Space Weather

Northern Lights


New experiments that create a man-made aurora are helping researchers better understand how nitrogen in our atmosphere reacts when it is bombarded by the solar wind. Scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory fired electrons of differing energies through a cloud of nitrogen gas to measure the ultraviolet light emitted by this collision, and the findings show our previous understanding of the processes that create the aurorae – which can also adversely affect orbiting satellites– may have been in error.

For more than 25 years, our understanding of terrestrial space weather has been partly based on incorrect assumptions about how nitrogen — the most abundant gas in our atmosphere –reacts when it collides with electrons produced by energetic ultraviolet sunlight and solar wind.

The new research has found that well-trusted measurements published in a 1985 journal paper by researchers Ajello and Shemansky contain a significant experimental error, putting decades of space weather findings dependent on this work on unstable ground.

New technology has allowed the researchers to better create and control the collisions and avoid the analytical pitfalls that plagued the 1985 findings.

The new results from the team at JPL suggest that the intensity of a broad band of ultraviolet light emitted from the collision changes significantly less with bombarding electron energies than previously thought.

The researchers studied ultraviolet light within the so called ‘Lyman-Birge-Hopfield’ (LBH) band to better understand the physical and chemical processes occurring in our upper atmosphere and in near-Earth space.

“Our measurement of LBH energy-dependence differs significantly from widely accepted results published 25 years ago,” said Dr. Charles Patrick Malone from JPL. “Aeronomers can now turn the experiment around and apply it to atmospheric studies and determine what kind of collisions produce the observed light.”

In addition to helping researchers to better understand space weather, which can help protecting the ever-growing population of satellites in Earth orbit, the new findings will also help further our understanding of phenomena like Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) and similarly the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), which are caused by collisional processes involving solar wind particles exciting terrestrial oxygen and nitrogen particles at the North and South Pole.

The researchers are hopeful that their findings will also assist the Cassini project understand happenings on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as LBH emissions have been detected by the orbiting robotic spacecraft.

The research was published in IOP Publishing’s Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics.

Amazing Pic: ISS Flys Through Aurora


What an amazing pic of the International Space Station “flying through” an aurora at orbital speeds of 28,000 kmh (17,500 mph)! Super-space-photographer and Tweeter Soichi Noguchi captured this spectacular image earlier today, taking advantage of some rare solar activity. “Fly through Aurora at 28,000kmh. Happy 1,000 tweets” Noguichi wrote on Twitter. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center sent out a notice early this morning saying : “A geomagnetic storm began at 05:55 AM EST Monday, April 5, 2010. Space weather storm levels reached Strong (G3) levels on the Geomagnetic Storms Space Weather Scale.”

And indeed, that solar activity created a picturesque backdrop to the ISS today! Wow!

Noguchi, a.k.a. Astro_Soichi on Twitter is setting a new standard for Twittering and Twitpics from space — and photography, too. He and his Expedition 22 crewmates recently broke the record for the amount of images taken by an ISS crew. They snapped over 100,000 images of space and Earth during their accumulated six-month Expedition, bringing the number of pictures taken from the space station to a grand total of almost 639,000 images. With the new crew arriving at the ISS this past weekend, Expedition 23 is now officially underway.

Check out more of Astro_Soichi’s Twitter pictures on his TwitPic page.
. And here are more amazing space pictures.

Sources: Twitter, NOAA, Yahoo News

Colliding Auroras Create Explosions

Colliding auroras photographed by THEMIS all-sky imagers (ASIs) on Feb. 29, 2008. Credit: Toshi Nishimura/UCLA

Scientists recently discovered something about auroras they never knew before. “Our jaws dropped when we saw the movies for the first time,” said Larry Lyons of the University of California-Los Angeles,(UCLA) describing how sometimes, vast curtains of aurora borealis collide, producing spectacular outbursts of light. “These outbursts are telling us something very fundamental about the nature of auroras.” These collisions can be so large, that isolated observers on Earth — with limited fields of view — have never noticed them before. It took a network of sensitive cameras spread across thousands of miles to get the big picture.

This network of 20 cameras, set up by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency was deployed around the Arctic in support of the THEMIS mission, the “Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms.” THEMIS consists of five identical probes launched in 2006 to solve a long-standing mystery: Why do auroras occasionally erupt in an explosion of light called a substorm?

The cameras would photograph auroras from below while the spacecraft sampled charged particles and electromagnetic fields from above. Together, the on-ground cameras and spacecraft would see the action from both sides and be able to piece together cause and effect—or so researchers hoped. It seems to have worked.

This three frame animation of THEMIS/ASI images shows auroras colliding on Feb. 29, 2008.  Credit: Toshi Nishimura/UCLA
This three frame animation of THEMIS/ASI images shows auroras colliding on Feb. 29, 2008. Credit: Toshi Nishimura/UCLA

The breakthrough came earlier this year when UCLA researcher Toshi Nishimura assembled continent-wide movies from the individual ASI cameras. “It can be a little tricky,” Nishimura said. “Each camera has its own local weather and lighting conditions, and the auroras are different distances from each camera. I’ve got to account for these factors for six or more cameras simultaneously to make a coherent, large-scale movie.”

The first movie he showed Lyons was a pair of auroras crashing together in Dec. 2007. “It was like nothing I had seen before,” Lyons recalled. “Over the next several days, we surveyed more events. Our excitement mounted as we became convinced that the collisions were happening over and over.”

A schematic diagram of Earth's magnetosphere. Earth is the circle near the middle and the plasma tail is denoted in yellow. Credit: Larry Lyons/UCLA
A schematic diagram of Earth's magnetosphere. Earth is the circle near the middle and the plasma tail is denoted in yellow. Credit: Larry Lyons/UCLA

The explosions of light, they believe, are a sign of something dramatic happening in the space around Earth—specifically, in Earth’s “plasma tail.” Millions of kilometers long and pointed away from the sun, the plasma tail is made of charged particles captured mainly from the solar wind. Sometimes called the “plasma sheet,” the tail is held together by Earth’s magnetic field.

The same magnetic field that holds the tail together also connects it to Earth’s polar regions. Because of this connection, watching the dance of Northern Lights can reveal much about what’s happening in the plasma tail.

THEMIS project scientist Dave Sibeck of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. said, “By putting together data from ground-based cameras, ground-based radar, and the THEMIS spacecraft, we now have a nearly complete picture of what causes explosive auroral substorms,”

Lyons and Nishimura have identified a common sequence of events. It begins with a broad curtain of slow-moving auroras and a smaller knot of fast-moving auroras, initially far apart. The slow curtain quietly hangs in place, almost immobile, when the speedy knot rushes in from the north. The auroras collide and an eruption of light ensues.

How does this sequence connect to events in the plasma tail? Lyons believes the fast-moving knot is associated with a stream of relatively lightweight plasma jetting through the tail. The stream gets started in the outer regions of the plasma tail and moves rapidly inward toward Earth. The fast knot of auroras moves in synch with this stream.

Meanwhile, the broad curtain of auroras is connected to the stationary inner boundary of the plasma tail and fueled by plasma instabilities there. When the lightweight stream reaches the inner boundary of the plasma tail, there is an eruption of plasma waves and instabilities. This collision of plasma is mirrored by a collision of auroras over the poles.

Movies of the phenomenon were unveiled at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union today in San Francisco.

Sources: EurekAlert, [email protected]

What is the Aurora Australis?

Aurora australis (also known as the southern lights, and southern polar lights) is the southern hemisphere counterpart to the aurora borealis. In the sky, an aurora australis takes the shape of a curtain of light, or a sheet, or a diffuse glow; it most often is green, sometimes red, and occasionally other colors too.

Like its northern sibling, the aurora australis is strongest in an oval centered on the south magnetic pole. This is because they are the result of collisions between energetic electrons (sometimes also protons) and atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere … and the electrons get their high energies by being accelerated by solar wind magnetic fields and the Earth’s magnetic field (the motions are complicated, but essentially the electrons spiral around the Earth’s magnetic field lines and ‘touch down’ near to where those lines become vertical).

So by far the best place to see aurorae in the southern hemisphere is Antarctica! Oh, and at night too. When the solar cycle is near its maximum, aurora australis are sometimes visible in New Zealand (especially the South Island), southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile and Argentina (sometimes in South Africa too).

About the colors: the physics is similar to what make a flame orange-yellow when salt is added to it (i.e. specific atomic transitions in sodium atoms); green and red come from atomic oxygen; nitrogen ions and molecules make some pinkish-reds and blue-violet; and so on.

How high are aurorae? Typically 100 to 300 km (this is where green is usually seen, with red at the top), but sometimes as high as 500 km, and as low as 80 km (this requires particularly energetic particles, to penetrate so deep; if you see purple, the aurora is likely to be this low).

There’s a good aurora FAQ at this University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute site (though it, naturally, concentrates on the borealis!).

Aurorae on other planets? Well, as there are strong magnetic fields plus (not so strong) solar wind plus (really deep) atmosphere on Jupiter and Saturn, they have spectacular aurorae, in rings around their magnetic poles (which are closer to their rotation poles than Earth’s are). Aurorae have also been imaged on Venus, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, and even Io (atmosphere? solar wind? magnetic fields? sure, but very different than on planets).

Some Universe Today stories on aurorae: Aurora Australis at the South Pole, Aurora Reports from Around the World, Northern & Southern Aurorae Are Siblings, But Not Twins, Chandra Looks at the Earth’s Aurora, First Aurora Seen on Mars, and Saturn’s “Dualing” Aurorae.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

The aurora (plural aurorae) borealis has many other names: northern lights, northern polar lights, polar lights, and more. An aurora borealis is light seen in the sky, nearly always at night, in the northern hemisphere, commonly green but also red and (rarely) other colors; often in the shape of curtains, sheets, or a diffuse glow (when seen from the ground). Northern lights are most often seen at high latitudes – Alaska, Canada, northern Scandinavia, Greenland, Siberia, and Iceland – and during maxima in the solar cycle.

Aurora australis – southern lights – is the corresponding southern hemisphere phenomenon.

Seeing a bright auroral display may be on your list of ‘things to see before I die’! Yep, they are nature’s light show par excellence.

Aurora borealis occur in the Earth’s ionosphere, and result from collisions between energetic electrons (sometimes also protons, and even heavier charged particles) and atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The ultimate origin of the energy which powers the aurora borealis is the Sun – via the solar wind – and the Earth’s magnetic field. Interactions between the solar wind (which carries its own tangled magnetic fields) and the Earth’s magnetic field may cause electrons (and other particles) to be trapped and accelerated; those particles which do not escape ‘downstream’ to the magnetic tail ‘touch down’ in the atmosphere, close to the north magnetic pole.

The different colors come from different atoms or ions; green and red from atomic oxygen, nitrogen ions and molecules make some pinkish-reds and blue-violet; purple is the appearance of combined colors from nitrogen ions and helium; neon produces the very rare orange. The ionosphere is home to most aurorae borealis, with 100-300 km being typical (this is where green is usually seen, with red at the top); however, some particularly energetic particles penetrate much deeper into the atmosphere, down to perhaps 80 km or lower (purple often comes from here).

Viewed from space, when the northern lights are intense they appear as a ring (an oval actually), the auroral zone, with the north magnetic pole near the center.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has a good FAQ on the aurora borealis.

Magnetic fields plus solar wind … so you’d expect aurorae on Jupiter and Saturn, right? And auroral displays around the magnetic poles of these planets are now well documented. Aurorae have also been imaged on Venus, Mars, Uranus, Neptune, and even Io.

Some Universe Today stories on aurorae – borealis, australis, … and extra-terrestrial: What are the Northern Lights?, Aurora Reports from Around the World, Behind the Power and Beauty of the Northern Lights, Northern & Southern Aurorae Are Siblings, But Not Twins, Two Rockets Fly Through Auroral Arc, Chandra Looks at the Earth’s Aurora, First Aurora Seen on Mars, and Saturn’s “Dualing” Aurorae.

Branson Wants to Fly Space Tourists into the Northern Lights


For his next big plan for the private space industry, Richard Branson is thinking up new ways to excite affluent space tourists: flying them into the biggest lightshow on Earth, the Aurora Borealis. Although the New Mexico Virgin Galactic Spaceport isn’t scheduled for completion until 2010, the British entrepreneur is already planning his next project intended for cruises into the spectacular space phenomenon from an Arctic launchpad.

Located in the far north of Sweden (in the Lapland province), the small town of Kiruna has a long history of space observation and rocket launches. The Arctic location provides the town with unrivalled views of the Aurora Borealis as it erupts overhead. The Auroral lightshow is generated by atmospheric reactions to impacting solar wind particles as they channel along the Earth’s magnetic field and down into the thickening atmospheric gases.

Once a view exclusive only to sounding rockets, this awe inspiring sight may in the future be seen from the inside, and above, by fee-paying space tourists as they are launched into space from a new spaceport, on the site of an existing base called Esrange. Although launching humans into an active aurora holds little scientific interest (if it did, it would have probably been done by now), it does pose some prudent health and safety questions. As Dr Olle Norberg, Esrange’s director, confidently states: “Is there a build-up of charge on the spacecraft? What is the radiation dose that you would receive? Those studies came out saying it is safe to do this.” Phew, that’s a relief.

The chance to actually be inside this magnificent display of light will be an incredible selling point for Virgin Galactic and their SpaceShipTwo flights. As if going into space were not enough, you can see and fly through the atmosphere at it’s most magnificent too.

Source: The Guardian Unlimited