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Aurora (astronomy)

Aurora (astronomy)

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An aurora is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude (Arctic
Arctic
The Arctic is a region located at the northern-most part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic region consists of a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by treeless permafrost...

 and Antarctic
Antarctic
The Antarctic is the region around the Earth's South Pole, opposite the Arctic region around the North Pole. The Antarctic comprises the continent of Antarctica and the ice shelves, waters and island territories in the Southern Ocean situated south of the Antarctic Convergence...

) regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere
Thermosphere
The thermosphere is the biggest of all the layers of the Earth's atmosphere directly above the mesosphere and directly below the exosphere. Within this layer, ultraviolet radiation causes ionization. The International Space Station has a stable orbit within the middle of the thermosphere, between...

). The charged particles originate in the magnetosphere and solar wind and are directed by the Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field is the magnetic field that extends from the Earth's inner core to where it meets the solar wind, a stream of energetic particles emanating from the Sun...

 into the atmosphere. Aurora is classified as diffuse or discrete aurora. 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
Geomagnetic storm
A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium. A geomagnetic storm is a major component of space weather and provides the input for many other components of space weather...

, the auroral zone will expand to lower latitudes. The diffuse aurora is a featureless glow in the sky which may not be visible to the naked eye even on a dark night and defines the extent of the auroral zone. The discrete aurora are sharply defined features within the diffuse aurora which vary in brightness from just barely visible to the naked eye to bright enough to read a newspaper at night. Discrete aurorae are usually observed only in the night sky
Night sky
The term night sky refers to the sky as seen at night. The term is usually associated with astronomy, with reference to views of celestial bodies such as stars, the Moon, and planets that become visible on a clear night after the Sun has set. Natural light sources in a night sky include moonlight,...

 because they are not as bright as the sunlit sky. Aurorae occur occasionally poleward of the auroral zone as diffuse patches or arcs (polar cap arcs) which are generally invisible to the naked eye.

In northern latitude
Latitude
In geography, the latitude of a location on the Earth is the angular distance of that location south or north of the Equator. The latitude is an angle, and is usually measured in degrees . The equator has a latitude of 0°, the North pole has a latitude of 90° north , and the South pole has a...

s, the effect is known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 goddess
Roman mythology
Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories pertaining to ancient Rome's legendary origins and religious system, as represented in the literature and visual arts of the Romans...

 of dawn, Aurora
Aurora (mythology)
Aurora is the Latin word for dawn, the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology and Latin poetry.Like Greek Eos and Rigvedic Ushas , Aurora continues the name of an earlier Indo-European dawn goddess, *Hausos....

, and the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 name for the north wind, Boreas
Anemoi
In Greek mythology, the Anemoi were Greek wind gods who were each ascribed a cardinal direction from which their respective winds came , and were each associated with various seasons and weather conditions...

, by Pierre Gassendi
Pierre Gassendi
Pierre Gassendi was a French philosopher, priest, scientist, astronomer, and mathematician. With a church position in south-east France, he also spent much time in Paris, where he was a leader of a group of free-thinking intellectuals. He was also an active observational scientist, publishing the...

 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. The aurora borealis most often occurs near the equinox
Equinox
An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator...

es. The northern lights have had a number of names throughout history. The Cree
Cree
The Cree are one of the largest groups of First Nations / Native Americans in North America, with 200,000 members living in Canada. In Canada, the major proportion of Cree live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, although...

 call this phenomenon the "Dance of the Spirits". In Europe, in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, the auroras were commonly believed a sign from God (see Wilfried Schröder, Das Phänomen des Polarlichts, Darmstadt 1984).

Its southern counterpart, the aurora australis (or the southern lights), has almost identical features to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone and is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, South America
South America
South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. The continent is also considered a subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east...

 and Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

.

Aurorae occur on other planets. Similar to the Earth's aurora, they are visible close to the planet's magnetic poles.

Modern style guides recommend that the names of meteorological phenomena, such as aurora borealis, be uncapitalized.

Auroral mechanism


Auroras are result from emissions of photons in the Earth's upper atmosphere
Atmosphere
An atmosphere is a layer of gases that may surround a material body of sufficient mass, and that is held in place by the gravity of the body. An atmosphere may be retained for a longer duration, if the gravity is high and the atmosphere's temperature is low...

, above 80 km (49.7 mi), from ionized nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 and nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 atoms returning from an excited state
Excited state
Excitation is an elevation in energy level above an arbitrary baseline energy state. In physics there is a specific technical definition for energy level which is often associated with an atom being excited to an excited state....

 to ground state
Ground state
The ground state of a quantum mechanical system is its lowest-energy state; the energy of the ground state is known as the zero-point energy of the system. An excited state is any state with energy greater than the ground state...

. They are ionized or excited
Excited state
Excitation is an elevation in energy level above an arbitrary baseline energy state. In physics there is a specific technical definition for energy level which is often associated with an atom being excited to an excited state....

 by the collision of solar wind
Solar wind
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 1.5 and 10 keV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time...

 and magnetospheric
Magnetosphere
A magnetosphere is formed when a stream of charged particles, such as the solar wind, interacts with and is deflected by the intrinsic magnetic field of a planet or similar body. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields: Mercury, Jupiter,...

 particles being funneled down and accelerated along the Earth's magnetic field lines; excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon of light, or by collision with another atom or molecule:
oxygen
Oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 emissions: Green or brownish-red, depending on the amount of energy absorbed.
nitrogen
Nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 emissions: Blue or red. Blue if the atom regains an electron after it has been ionized. Red if returning to ground state
Ground state
The ground state of a quantum mechanical system is its lowest-energy state; the energy of the ground state is known as the zero-point energy of the system. An excited state is any state with energy greater than the ground state...

 from an excited state
Excited state
Excitation is an elevation in energy level above an arbitrary baseline energy state. In physics there is a specific technical definition for energy level which is often associated with an atom being excited to an excited state....

.

Oxygen is unusual in terms of its return to ground state
Ground state
The ground state of a quantum mechanical system is its lowest-energy state; the energy of the ground state is known as the zero-point energy of the system. An excited state is any state with energy greater than the ground state...

: it can take three quarters of a second to emit green light and up to two minutes to emit red. Collisions with other atoms or molecules will absorb the excitation energy and prevent emission. Because the very top of the atmosphere has a higher percentage of oxygen and is sparsely distributed such collisions are rare enough to allow time for oxygen to emit red. Collisions become more frequent progressing down into the atmosphere, so that red emissions do not have time to happen, and eventually even green light emissions are prevented.

This is why there is a colour differential with altitude; at high altitude oxygen red dominates, then oxygen green and nitrogen blue/red, then finally nitrogen blue/red when collisions prevent oxygen from emitting anything. Green is the most common of all auroras. Behind it is pink, a mixture of light green and red, followed by pure red, yellow (a mixture of red and green), and lastly pure blue.

Auroras are associated with the solar wind, a flow of ions continuously flowing outward from the Sun. The Earth's magnetic field traps these particles, many of which travel toward the poles where they are accelerated toward Earth. Collisions between these ions and atmospheric atoms and molecules cause energy releases in the form of auroras appearing in large circles around the poles. Auroras are more frequent and brighter during the intense phase of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections increase the intensity of the solar wind.

Forms and magnetism




Typically the aurora appears either as a diffuse glow or as "curtains" that approximately extend in the east-west direction. At some times, they form "quiet arcs"; at others ("active aurora"), they evolve and change constantly. Each curtain consists of many parallel rays, each lined up with the local direction of the magnetic field lines, suggesting that auroras are shaped by Earth's magnetic field. Indeed, satellites show electrons to be guided by magnetic field lines, spiraling around them while moving towards Earth.

The similarity to curtains is often enhanced by folds called "striations". When the field line guiding a bright auroral patch leads to a point directly above the observer, the aurora may appear as a "corona" of diverging rays, an effect of perspective
Perspective (visual)
Perspective, in context of vision and visual perception, is the way in which objects appear to the eye based on their spatial attributes; or their dimensions and the position of the eye relative to the objects...

.

Although it was first mentioned by Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

 explorer/geographer
Geographer
A geographer is a scholar whose area of study is geography, the study of Earth's natural environment and human society.Although geographers are historically known as people who make maps, map making is actually the field of study of cartography, a subset of geography...

 Pytheas
Pytheas
Pytheas of Massalia or Massilia , was a Greek geographer and explorer from the Greek colony, Massalia . He made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe at about 325 BC. He travelled around and visited a considerable part of Great Britain...

, Hiorter and Celsius
Anders Celsius
Anders Celsius was a Swedish astronomer. He was professor of astronomy at Uppsala University from 1730 to 1744, but traveled from 1732 to 1735 visiting notable observatories in Germany, Italy and France. He founded the Uppsala Astronomical Observatory in 1741, and in 1742 he proposed the Celsius...

 first described in 1741 evidence for magnetic control, namely, large magnetic fluctuations occurred whenever the aurora was observed overhead. This indicates (it was later realized) that large electric current
Electric current
Electric current is a flow of electric charge through a medium.This charge is typically carried by moving electrons in a conductor such as wire...

s were associated with the aurora, flowing in the region where auroral light originated. Kristian Birkeland
Kristian Birkeland
Kristian Olaf Birkeland was a Norwegian scientist. He is best remembered as the person who first elucidated the nature of the Aurora borealis. In order to fund his research on the aurorae, he invented the electromagnetic cannon and the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air...

 (1908) deduced that the currents flowed in the east-west directions along the auroral arc, and such currents, flowing from the dayside towards (approximately) midnight were later named "auroral electrojets" (see also Birkeland current
Birkeland current
A Birkeland current is a set of currents which flow along geomagnetic field line connecting the Earth’s magnetosphere to the Earth's high latitude ionosphere. They are a specific class of magnetic field-aligned currents. Lately, the term Birkeland currents has been expanded by some authors to...

s).

On 26 February 2008, THEMIS
Themis
Themis is an ancient Greek Titaness. She is described as "of good counsel", and is the embodiment of divine order, law, and custom. Themis means "divine law" rather than human ordinance, literally "that which is put in place", from the verb τίθημι, títhēmi, "to put"...

 probes were able to determine, for the first time, the triggering event for the onset of magnetospheric substorms. Two of the five probes, positioned approximately one third the distance to the moon, measured events suggesting a magnetic reconnection
Magnetic reconnection
Magnetic reconnection is a physical process in highly conducting plasmas in which the magnetic topology is rearranged and magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration...

 event 96 seconds prior to auroral intensification. Dr. Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Los Angeles
The University of California, Los Angeles is a public research university located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, USA. It was founded in 1919 as the "Southern Branch" of the University of California and is the second oldest of the ten campuses...

, the principal investigator for the THEMIS mission, claimed, "Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger."

Still more evidence for a magnetic connection are the statistics of auroral observations. Elias Loomis
Elias Loomis
- Life and work :Loomis was born in Willington, Connecticut in 1811. He graduated at Yale College in 1830, was a tutor there for three years , and then spent the next year in scientific investigation in Paris. On his return, Loomis was appointed professor of mathematics in the Western Reserve...

 (1860) and later in more detail Hermann Fritz (1881) and S. Tromholt (1882) established that the aurora appeared mainly in the "auroral zone", a ring-shaped region with a radius of approximately 2500 km around Earth's magnetic pole. It was hardly ever seen near the geographic pole, which is about 2000 km away from the magnetic pole. The instantaneous distribution of auroras ("auroral oval") is slightly different, centered about 3–5 degrees nightward of the magnetic pole, so that auroral arcs reach furthest towards the equator around midnight. The aurora can be seen best at this time.

Solar wind and the magnetosphere



The Earth is constantly immersed in the solar wind
Solar wind
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 1.5 and 10 keV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time...

, a rarefied flow of hot plasma (gas of free electrons and positive ions) emitted by the Sun in all directions, a result of the two-million-degree heat of the Sun's outermost layer, the corona
Corona
A corona is a type of plasma "atmosphere" of the Sun or other celestial body, extending millions of kilometers into space, most easily seen during a total solar eclipse, but also observable in a coronagraph...

. The solar wind usually reaches Earth with a velocity around 400 km/s, density around 5 ions/cm3 and magnetic field intensity around 2–5 nT (nanoteslas
Tesla (unit)
The tesla is the SI derived unit of magnetic field B . One tesla is equal to one weber per square meter, and it was defined in 1960 in honour of the inventor, physicist, and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla...

; Earth's surface field is typically 30,000–50,000 nT). These are typical values. During magnetic storms
Geomagnetic storm
A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium. A geomagnetic storm is a major component of space weather and provides the input for many other components of space weather...

, in particular, flows can be several times faster; the interplanetary magnetic field
Interplanetary Magnetic Field
The interplanetary magnetic field is the term for the solar magnetic field carried by the solar wind among the planets of the Solar System....

 (IMF) may also be much stronger.

The IMF originates on the Sun, related to the field of sunspot
Sunspot
Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the photosphere of the Sun that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which inhibits convection by an effect comparable to the eddy current brake, forming areas of reduced surface temperature....

s, and its field lines (lines of force)
Magnetism
Magnetism is a property of materials that respond at an atomic or subatomic level to an applied magnetic field. Ferromagnetism is the strongest and most familiar type of magnetism. It is responsible for the behavior of permanent magnets, which produce their own persistent magnetic fields, as well...

 are dragged out by the solar wind. That alone would tend to line them up in the Sun-Earth direction, but the rotation of the Sun skews them (at Earth) by about 45 degrees, so that field lines passing Earth may actually start near the western edge ("limb") of the visible Sun.

Earth's magnetosphere
Magnetosphere
A magnetosphere is formed when a stream of charged particles, such as the solar wind, interacts with and is deflected by the intrinsic magnetic field of a planet or similar body. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields: Mercury, Jupiter,...

 is formed by the impact of the solar wind on the Earth's magnetic field. It forms an obstacle to the solar wind, diverting it, at an average distance of about 70,000 km (11 Earth radii or Re), forming a bow shock
Bow shock
A bow shock is the area between a magnetosphere and an ambient medium. For stars, this is typically the boundary between their stellar wind and the interstellar medium....

 12,000 km to 15,000 km (1.9 to 2.4 Re) further upstream. The width of the magnetosphere abreast of Earth, is typically 190,000 km (30 Re), and on the night side a long "magnetotail" of stretched field lines extends to great distances (> 200 Re).

The magnetosphere is full of trapped plasma as the solar wind passes the Earth. The flow of plasma into the magnetosphere increases with increases in solar wind density and speed, with increase in the southward component of the IMF and with increases in turbulence in the solar wind flow. The flow pattern of magnetospheric plasma is from the magnetotail toward the Earth, around the Earth and back into the solar wind through the magnetopause
Magnetopause
The magnetopause is the abrupt boundary between a magnetosphere and the surrounding plasma. For planetary science, the magnetopause is the boundary between the planet’s magnetic field and the solar wind. The location of the magnetopause is determined by the balance between the pressure of the...

 on the day-side. In addition to moving perpendicular to the Earth's magnetic field, some magnetospheric plasma travel down along the Earth's magnetic field lines and lose energy to the atmosphere in the auroral zones. Magnetospheric electrons which are accelerated downward by field-aligned electric fields are responsible for the bright aurora features. The un-accelerated electrons and ions are responsible for the dim glow of the diffuse aurora.

Frequency of occurrence



Auroras are occasionally seen in temperate latitudes, when a magnetic storm temporarily grows the auroral oval. Large magnetic storms are most common during the peak of the eleven-year sunspot cycle
Sunspot
Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the photosphere of the Sun that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which inhibits convection by an effect comparable to the eddy current brake, forming areas of reduced surface temperature....

 or during the three years after that peak. However, within the auroral zone the likelihood of an aurora occurring depends mostly on the slant of interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) lines (the slant is known as Bz), being greater with southward slants.

Geomagnetic storm
Geomagnetic storm
A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium. A geomagnetic storm is a major component of space weather and provides the input for many other components of space weather...

s that ignite auroras actually happen more often during the months around the equinox
Equinox
An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator...

es. It is not well understood why geomagnetic storms are tied to Earth's seasons while polar activity is not. But it is known that during spring and autumn, the interplanetary magnetic field and that of Earth link up. At the magnetopause
Magnetopause
The magnetopause is the abrupt boundary between a magnetosphere and the surrounding plasma. For planetary science, the magnetopause is the boundary between the planet’s magnetic field and the solar wind. The location of the magnetopause is determined by the balance between the pressure of the...

, Earth's magnetic field points north. When Bz becomes large and negative (i.e., the IMF tilts south), it can partially cancel Earth's magnetic field at the point of contact. South-pointing Bz's open a door through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth's inner magnetosphere.

The peaking of Bz during this time is a result of geometry. The IMF comes from the Sun and is carried outward with the solar wind. The rotation of the Sun causes the IMF to have a spiral shape
Parker spiral
The Parker spiral is the shape of the Sun's magnetic field as it extends through the solar system. Unlike the familiar shape of the field from a bar magnet, the Sun's extended field is twisted into an arithmetic spiral by the magnetohydrodynamic influence of the solar wind...

 called the Parker spiral. The southward (and northward) excursions of Bz are greatest during April and October, when Earth's magnetic dipole axis is most closely aligned with the Parker spiral.

However, Bz is not the only influence on geomagnetic activity. The Sun's rotation axis is tilted 8 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit. The solar wind blows more rapidly from the Sun's poles than from its equator, thus the average speed of particles buffeting Earth's magnetosphere waxes and wanes every six months. The solar wind speed is greatest – by about 50 km/s, on average – around 5 September and 5 March when Earth lies at its highest heliographic latitude.

Still, neither Bz nor the solar wind can fully explain the seasonal behavior of geomagnetic storms. Those factors together contribute only about one-third of the observed semiannual variations.

Auroral events of historical significance


The auroras that resulted from the "great geomagnetic storm
Solar storm of 1859
The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm, or the Carrington Event, which occurred during solar cycle 10, was the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, and the largest flare, observed by Richard Christopher Carrington, became known as the Carrington Super...

" on both 28 August and 2 September 1859 are thought the most spectacular in recent recorded history. Balfour Stewart
Balfour Stewart
Balfour Stewart was a Scottish physicist. His studies in the field of radiant heat led to him receiving the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society in 1868. In 1859 he was appointed director of Kew Observatory...

, in a paper to the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

 on 21 November 1861, described both auroral events as documented by a self-recording magnetograph
Magnetograph
A magnetograph is one of two types of scientific instrument:* A special type of magnetometer that records a time plot of the local magnetic field near the instrument; or...

 at the Kew Observatory
Kew Observatory
Kew Observatory was an astronomical and terrestrial magnetic observatoryfounded by King George III , located within the Old Deer Park of the former Richmond Palace in Richmond, Surrey, now within Greater London. The former royal manor of Kew lies to the immediate north...

 and established the connection between the 2 September 1859 auroral storm and the Carrington-Hodgson flare event when he observed that "it is not impossible to suppose that in this case our luminary was taken in the act." The second auroral event, which occurred on 2 September 1859 as a result of the exceptionally intense Carrington-Hodgson white light solar flare
Solar flare
A solar flare is a sudden brightening observed over the Sun surface or the solar limb, which is interpreted as a large energy release of up to 6 × 1025 joules of energy . The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day...

 on 1 September 1859 produced auroras so widespread and extraordinarily brilliant that they were seen and reported in published scientific measurements, ships' logs and newspapers throughout the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 and Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

. It was reported by the New York Times
that in Boston
Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

 on Friday 2 September 1859 the aurora was "so brilliant that at about one o'clock ordinary print could be read by the light
Light
Light or visible light is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light has wavelength in a range from about 380 nanometres to about 740 nm, with a frequency range of about 405 THz to 790 THz...

". One o'clock Boston time on Friday 2 September, would have been 6:00 GMT and the self-recording magnetograph
Magnetograph
A magnetograph is one of two types of scientific instrument:* A special type of magnetometer that records a time plot of the local magnetic field near the instrument; or...

 at the Kew Observatory
Kew Observatory
Kew Observatory was an astronomical and terrestrial magnetic observatoryfounded by King George III , located within the Old Deer Park of the former Richmond Palace in Richmond, Surrey, now within Greater London. The former royal manor of Kew lies to the immediate north...

 was recording the geomagnetic storm
Geomagnetic storm
A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium. A geomagnetic storm is a major component of space weather and provides the input for many other components of space weather...

, which was then one hour old, at its full intensity. Between 1859 and 1862, Elias Loomis
Elias Loomis
- Life and work :Loomis was born in Willington, Connecticut in 1811. He graduated at Yale College in 1830, was a tutor there for three years , and then spent the next year in scientific investigation in Paris. On his return, Loomis was appointed professor of mathematics in the Western Reserve...

 published a series of nine papers on the Great Auroral Exhibition of 1859 in the American Journal of Science
American Journal of Science
The American Journal of Science is the United States of America's longest-running scientific journal, having been published continuously since its conception in 1818 by Professor Benjamin Silliman, who edited and financed it himself...

 where he collected world wide reports of the auroral event. The aurora is thought to have been produced by one of the most intense coronal mass ejection
Coronal mass ejection
A coronal mass ejection is a massive burst of solar wind, other light isotope plasma, and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space....

s in history, very near the maximum intensity that the Sun is thought to be capable of producing. It is also notable for the fact that it is the first time where the phenomena of auroral activity and electricity were unambiguously linked. This insight was made possible not only due to scientific magnetometer
Magnetometer
A magnetometer is a measuring instrument used to measure the strength or direction of a magnetic field either produced in the laboratory or existing in nature...

 measurements of the era but also as a result of a significant portion of the 125000 miles (201,167.5 km) of telegraph lines then in service being significantly disrupted for many hours throughout the storm. Some telegraph lines however seem to have been of the appropriate length and orientation to produce a sufficient geomagnetically induced current
Geomagnetically induced current
Geomagnetically induced currents , affecting the normal operation of long electrical conductor systems, are a manifestation at ground level of space weather. During space weather events, electric currents in the magnetosphere and ionosphere experience large variations, which manifest also in the...

 from the electromagnetic field
Electromagnetic field
An electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by moving electrically charged objects. It affects the behavior of charged objects in the vicinity of the field. The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction...

 to allow for continued communication with the telegraph operators' power supplies switched off. The following conversation occurred between two operators of the American Telegraph Line between Boston
Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

 and Portland, Maine
Portland, Maine
Portland is the largest city in Maine and is the county seat of Cumberland County. The 2010 city population was 66,194, growing 3 percent since the census of 2000...

, on the night of 2 September 1859 and reported in the Boston Traveler:
The conversation was carried on for around two hours using no battery power at all and working solely with the current induced by the aurora, and it was said that this was the first time on record that more than a word or two was transmitted in such manner. Such events led to the general conclusion that

Origin


The ultimate energy source of the aurora is the solar wind flowing past the Earth. The magnetosphere and solar wind consist of plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

 (ionized gas), which conducts electricity. It is well known (since Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday, FRS was an English chemist and physicist who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry....

's [1791 – 1867] work around 1830) that when an electrical conductor is placed within a magnetic field while relative motion occurs in a direction that the conductor cuts across (or is cut by), rather than along, the lines of the magnetic field, an electric current is said to be induced into that conductor and electrons will flow within it. The amount of current flow is dependent upon a) the rate of relative motion, b) the strength of the magnetic field, c) the number of conductors ganged together and d) the distance between the conductor and the magnetic field, while the direction of flow is dependent upon the direction of relative motion. Dynamo
Dynamo
- Engineering :* Dynamo, a magnetic device originally used as an electric generator* Dynamo theory, a theory relating to magnetic fields of celestial bodies* Solar dynamo, the physical process that generates the Sun's magnetic field- Software :...

s make use of this basic process ("the dynamo effect
Dynamo theory
In geophysics, dynamo theory proposes a mechanism by which a celestial body such as the Earth or a star generates a magnetic field. The theory describes the process through which a rotating, convecting, and electrically conducting fluid can maintain a magnetic field over astronomical time...

"), any and all conductors, solid or otherwise are so affected including plasmas or other fluids.

In particular the solar wind and the magnetosphere are two electrically conducting fluids with such relative motion and should be able (in principle) to generate electric currents by "dynamo action", in the process also extracting energy from the flow of the solar wind. The process is hampered by the fact that plasmas conduct easily along magnetic field lines, but not so easily perpendicular to them. So it is important that a temporary magnetic connection be established between the field lines of the solar wind and those of the magnetosphere, by a process known as magnetic reconnection
Magnetic reconnection
Magnetic reconnection is a physical process in highly conducting plasmas in which the magnetic topology is rearranged and magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration...

. It happens most easily with a southward slant of interplanetary field lines, because then field lines north of Earth approximately match the direction of field lines near the north magnetic pole
North Magnetic Pole
The Earth's North Magnetic Pole is the point on the surface of the Northern Hemisphere at which the Earth's magnetic field points vertically downwards . Though geographically in the north, it is, by the direction of the magnetic field lines, physically the south pole of the Earth's magnetic field...

 (namely, into Earth), and similarly near the south magnetic pole
South Magnetic Pole
The Earth's South Magnetic Pole is the wandering point on the Earth's surface where the geomagnetic field lines are directed vertically upwards...

. Indeed, active auroras (and related "substorms") are much more likely at such times. Electric currents originating in such way apparently give auroral electrons their energy. The magnetospheric plasma has an abundance of electrons: some are magnetically trapped, some reside in the magnetotail
Magnetosphere
A magnetosphere is formed when a stream of charged particles, such as the solar wind, interacts with and is deflected by the intrinsic magnetic field of a planet or similar body. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields: Mercury, Jupiter,...

, and some exist in the upward extension of the ionosphere
Ionosphere
The ionosphere is a part of the upper atmosphere, comprising portions of the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere, distinguished because it is ionized by solar radiation. It plays an important part in atmospheric electricity and forms the inner edge of the magnetosphere...

, which may extend (with diminishing density) some 25,000 km around Earth.

Bright auroras are generally associated with Birkeland current
Birkeland current
A Birkeland current is a set of currents which flow along geomagnetic field line connecting the Earth’s magnetosphere to the Earth's high latitude ionosphere. They are a specific class of magnetic field-aligned currents. Lately, the term Birkeland currents has been expanded by some authors to...

s (Schield et al., 1969; Zmuda and Armstrong, 1973) which flow down into the ionosphere on one side of the pole and out on the other. In between, some of the current connects directly through the ionospheric E layer (125 km); the rest ("region 2") detours, leaving again through field lines closer to the equator and closing through the "partial ring current" carried by magnetically trapped plasma. The ionosphere is an ohmic conductor
Ohm's law
Ohm's law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the potential difference across the two points...

, so such currents require a driving voltage, which some dynamo mechanism can supply. Electric field probes in orbit above the polar cap suggest voltages of the order of 40,000 volts, rising up to more than 200,000 volts during intense magnetic storms.

Ionospheric resistance has a complex nature, and leads to a secondary Hall current flow. By a strange twist of physics, the magnetic disturbance on the ground due to the main current almost cancels out, so most of the observed effect of auroras is due to a secondary current, the auroral electrojet. An auroral electrojet index (measured in nanotesla) is regularly derived from ground data and serves as a general measure of auroral activity.

However, ohmic resistance is not the only obstacle to current flow in this circuit. The convergence of magnetic field lines near Earth creates a "mirror effect" that turns back most of the down-flowing electrons (where currents flow upwards), inhibiting current-carrying capacity. To overcome this, part of the available voltage appears along the field line ("parallel to the field"), helping electrons overcome that obstacle by widening the bundle of trajectories reaching Earth; a similar "parallel potential" is used in "tandem mirror" plasma containment devices. A feature of such voltage is that it is concentrated near Earth (potential proportional to field intensity; Persson, 1963), and indeed, as deduced by Evans (1974) and confirmed by satellites, most auroral acceleration occurs below 10,000 km. Another indicator of parallel electric fields along field lines are beams of upwards flowing O+ ions observed on auroral field lines.

Some O+ ions ("conics") also seem accelerated in different ways by plasma processes associated with the aurora. These ions are accelerated by plasma waves, in directions mainly perpendicular to the field lines. They therefore start at their own "mirror points" and can travel only upwards. As they do so, the "mirror effect" transforms their directions of motion, from perpendicular to the line to lying on a cone around it, which gradually narrows down.

In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation
Auroral kilometric radiation
Auroral kilometric radiation is the intense radio radiation emitted in the acceleration zone of the polar lights. The radiation mainly comes from cyclotron radiation from electrons orbiting around the magnetic field lines of the Earth...

 (AKR, discovered in 1972). Ionospheric absorption makes AKR observable from space only.

These "parallel potentials" accelerate electrons to auroral energies and seem to be a major source of aurora. Other mechanisms have also been proposed, in particular, Alfvén waves, wave modes involving the magnetic field first noted by Hannes Alfvén
Hannes Alfvén
Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén was a Swedish electrical engineer, plasma physicist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetohydrodynamics . He described the class of MHD waves now known as Alfvén waves...

 (1942), which have been observed in the lab and in space. The question is however whether these waves might just be a different way of looking at the above process, because this approach does not point out a different energy source, and many plasma bulk phenomena can also be described in terms of Alfvén waves.

Other processes are also involved in the aurora, and much remains to be learned. Auroral electrons created by large geomagnetic storms often seem to have energies below 1 keV, and are stopped higher up, near 200 km. Such low energies excite mainly the red line of oxygen, so that often such auroras are red. On the other hand, positive ions also reach the ionosphere at such time, with energies of 20–30 keV, suggesting they might be an "overflow" along magnetic field lines of the copious "ring current" ions accelerated at such times, by processes different from the ones described above.

Sources and types


Understanding is very incomplete. There are three possible main sources:
  1. Dynamo action
    Dynamo theory
    In geophysics, dynamo theory proposes a mechanism by which a celestial body such as the Earth or a star generates a magnetic field. The theory describes the process through which a rotating, convecting, and electrically conducting fluid can maintain a magnetic field over astronomical time...

     with the solar wind flowing past Earth, possibly producing quiet auroral arcs ("directly driven" process). The circuit of the accelerating currents and their connection to the solar wind are uncertain.
  2. Dynamo action involving plasma squeezed towards Earth by sudden convulsions of the magnetotail
    Magnetosphere
    A magnetosphere is formed when a stream of charged particles, such as the solar wind, interacts with and is deflected by the intrinsic magnetic field of a planet or similar body. Earth is surrounded by a magnetosphere, as are the other planets with intrinsic magnetic fields: Mercury, Jupiter,...

     ("magnetic substorms"). Substorms tend to occur after prolonged spells (hours) during which the interplanetary magnetic field has an appreciable southward component, leading to a high rate of interconnection between its field lines and those of Earth. As a result the solar wind moves magnetic flux
    Magnetic flux
    Magnetic flux , is a measure of the amount of magnetic B field passing through a given surface . The SI unit of magnetic flux is the weber...

     (tubes of magnetic field lines, moving together with their resident plasma) from the day side of Earth to the magnetotail, widening the obstacle it presents to the solar wind flow and causing it to be squeezed harder. Ultimately the tail plasma is torn ("magnetic reconnection
    Magnetic reconnection
    Magnetic reconnection is a physical process in highly conducting plasmas in which the magnetic topology is rearranged and magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy, and particle acceleration...

    "); some blobs ("plasmoid
    Plasmoid
    A plasmoid is a coherent structure of plasma and magnetic fields. Plasmoids have been proposed to explain natural phenomena such as ball lightning, magnetic bubbles in the magnetosphere, and objects in cometary tails, in the solar wind, in the solar atmosphere, and in the heliospheric current sheet...

    s") are squeezed tailwards and are carried away with the solar wind; others are squeezed towards Earth where their motion feeds large outbursts of aurora, mainly around midnight ("unloading process"). Geomagnetic storms have similar effects, but with greater vigor. The big difference is the addition of many particles to the plasma trapped around Earth, enhancing the "ring current" it carries. The resulting modification of Earth's field makes auroras visible at middle latitudes, on field lines much closer to the equator.
  3. Satellite images of the aurora from above show a "ring of fire" along the auroral oval (see above), often widest at midnight. That is the "diffuse aurora", not distinct enough to be seen by the eye. It does not seem to be associated with acceleration by electric currents (although currents and their arcs may be embedded in it) but to be due to electrons leaking out of the magnetotail.


Any magnetic trapping is leaky—there always exists a bundle of directions ("loss cone") around the guiding magnetic field lines where particles are not trapped but escape. In the radiation belts
Van Allen radiation belt
The Van Allen radiation belt is a torus of energetic charged particles around Earth, which is held in place by Earth's magnetic field. It is believed that most of the particles that form the belts come from solar wind, and other particles by cosmic rays. It is named after its discoverer, James...

 of Earth, once particles on such trajectories are gone, new ones only replace them very slowly, leaving such directions nearly "empty". In the magnetotail, however, particle trajectories seem to be constantly reshuffled, probably when the particles cross the very weak field near the equator. As a result, the flow of electrons in all directions is nearly the same ("isotropic"), and that assures a steady supply of leaking electrons.

The energization of such electrons comes from magnetotail processes. The leakage of negative electrons does not leave the tail positively charged, because each leaked electron lost to the atmosphere is quickly replaced by a low energy electron drawn upwards from the ionosphere. Such replacement of "hot" electrons by "cold" ones is in complete accord with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Other types of auroras have been observed from space, e.g. "poleward arcs" stretching sunward across the polar cap, the related "theta aurora", and "dayside arcs" near noon. These are relatively infrequent and poorly understood. There are other interesting effects such as flickering aurora, "black aurora" and subvisual red arcs. In addition to all these, a weak glow (often deep red) has been observed around the two polar cusps, the "funnels" of field lines separating the ones that close on the day side of Earth from lines swept into the tail. The cusps allow a small amount of solar wind to reach the top of the atmosphere, producing an auroral glow.


On other planets



Both Jupiter
Jupiter
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet within the Solar System. It is a gas giant with mass one-thousandth that of the Sun but is two and a half times the mass of all the other planets in our Solar System combined. Jupiter is classified as a gas giant along with Saturn,...

 and Saturn
Saturn
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Saturn is named after the Roman god Saturn, equated to the Greek Cronus , the Babylonian Ninurta and the Hindu Shani. Saturn's astronomical symbol represents the Roman god's sickle.Saturn,...

 have magnetic fields much stronger than Earth's (Jupiter's equatorial field strength is 4.3 gauss, compared to 0.3 gauss for Earth), and both have large radiation belts. Auroras have been observed on both, most clearly with the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope is a space telescope that was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990 and remains in operation. A 2.4 meter aperture telescope in low Earth orbit, Hubble's four main instruments observe in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared...

. Uranus
Uranus
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. It is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus , the father of Cronus and grandfather of Zeus...

 and Neptune
Neptune
Neptune is the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Named for the Roman god of the sea, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter and the third largest by mass. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and is slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus, which is 15 times...

 have also been observed to have auroras.

The auroras on the gas giants seem, like Earth's, to be powered by the solar wind. In addition, however, Jupiter's moons, especially Io
Io (moon)
Io ) is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter and, with a diameter of , the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System. It was named after the mythological character of Io, a priestess of Hera who became one of the lovers of Zeus....

, are powerful sources of auroras on Jupiter. These arise from electric currents along field lines ("field aligned currents"), generated by a dynamo mechanism due to the relative motion between the rotating planet and the moving moon. Io, which has active volcanism and an ionosphere, is a particularly strong source, and its currents also generate radio emissions, studied since 1955. Auroras have also been observed on Io
Io (moon)
Io ) is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter and, with a diameter of , the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System. It was named after the mythological character of Io, a priestess of Hera who became one of the lovers of Zeus....

, Europa, and Ganymede themselves, e.g., using the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope is a space telescope that was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990 and remains in operation. A 2.4 meter aperture telescope in low Earth orbit, Hubble's four main instruments observe in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared...

. These Auroras have also been observed on Venus and Mars. Because Venus has no intrinsic (planetary) magnetic field, Venusian auroras appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed across the full planetary disc. Venusian auroras are produced by the impact of electrons originating from the solar wind and precipitating in the night-side atmosphere. An aurora was also detected on Mars, on 14 August 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express
Mars Express
Mars Express is a space exploration mission being conducted by the European Space Agency . The Mars Express mission is exploring the planet Mars, and is the first planetary mission attempted by the agency. "Express" originally referred to the speed and efficiency with which the spacecraft was...

. The aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria
Terra Cimmeria
Terra Cimmeria is a large Martian region, centered at and covering 5400 km at its broadest extent. It covers latitudes 15 N to 75 S and longitudes 170 to 260 W. Terra Cimmeria is one part of the heavily cratered, southern highland region of the planet...

, in the region of 177° East, 52° South. The total size of the emission region was about 30 km across, and possibly about 8 km high. By analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor
Mars Global Surveyor
The Mars Global Surveyor was a US spacecraft developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and launched November 1996. It began the United States's return to Mars after a 10-year absence. It completed its primary mission in January 2001 and was in its third extended mission phase when, on 2...

, scientists observed that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized. This correlation indicates that the origin of the light emission was a flux of electrons moving along the crust magnetic lines and exciting the upper atmosphere of Mars.

History of aurora theories


In the past theories have been proposed to explain the phenomenon. These theories are now obsolete.
  • Seneca
    Seneca the Younger
    Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero...

     speaks diffusely on auroras in the first book of his Naturales Quaestiones
    Naturales quaestiones
    Naturales quaestiones is an encyclopedia of the natural world written by Seneca around 65 AD. It is much shorter than the Naturalis Historia produced by Pliny the Elder some ten years later, however.-Content:...

    , drawing mainly from Aristoteles; he classifies them ("putei" or wells when they are circular and "rim a large hole in the sky", "pithaei" when they look like casks, "chasmata" from the same root of the English chasm, "pogoniae" when they are bearded, "cyparissae" when they look like cypress
    Cypress
    Cypress is the name applied to many plants in the cypress family Cupressaceae, which is a conifer of northern temperate regions. Most cypress species are trees, while a few are shrubs...

    es), describes their manifold colors and asks himself whether they are above or below the clouds. He recalls that under Tiberius
    Tiberius
    Tiberius , was Roman Emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD. Tiberius was by birth a Claudian, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced Nero and married Augustus in 39 BC, making him a step-son of Octavian...

    , an aurora formed above Ostia
    Ostia Antica
    Ostia Antica is a large archeological site, close to the modern suburb of Ostia , that was the location of the harbour city of ancient Rome, which is approximately 30 km to the northeast. "Ostia" in Latin means "mouth". At the mouth of the River Tiber, Ostia was Rome's seaport, but, due to...

    , so intense and so red that a cohort of the army, stationed nearby for fireman duty, galloped to the city.
  • Benjamin Franklin
    Benjamin Franklin
    Dr. Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat...

     theorized that the "mystery of the Northern Lights" was caused by a concentration of electrical charges in the polar regions intensified by the snow and other moisture.
  • Auroral electrons come from beams emitted by the Sun. This was claimed around 1900 by Kristian Birkeland
    Kristian Birkeland
    Kristian Olaf Birkeland was a Norwegian scientist. He is best remembered as the person who first elucidated the nature of the Aurora borealis. In order to fund his research on the aurorae, he invented the electromagnetic cannon and the Birkeland-Eyde process of fixing nitrogen from the air...

    , whose experiments in a vacuum chamber with electron beams and magnetized spheres (miniature models of Earth or "terrellas") showed that such electrons would be guided towards the polar regions. Problems with this model included absence of aurora at the poles themselves, self-dispersal of such beams by their negative charge, and more recently, lack of any observational evidence in space.
  • The aurora is the overflow of the radiation belt
    Van Allen radiation belt
    The Van Allen radiation belt is a torus of energetic charged particles around Earth, which is held in place by Earth's magnetic field. It is believed that most of the particles that form the belts come from solar wind, and other particles by cosmic rays. It is named after its discoverer, James...

     ("leaky bucket theory"). This was first disproved around 1962 by James Van Allen
    James Van Allen
    James Alfred Van Allen was an American space scientist at the University of Iowa.The Van Allen radiation belts were named after him, following the 1958 satellite missions in which Van Allen had argued that a Geiger counter should be used to detect charged particles.- Life and career :* September...

     and co-workers, who showed that the high rate of energy dissipation by the aurora would quickly drain the radiation belt. Soon afterward, it became clear that most of the energy in trapped particles resided in positive ions, while auroral particles were almost always electrons, of relatively low energy.
  • The aurora is produced by solar wind
    Solar wind
    The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 1.5 and 10 keV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time...

     particles guided by Earth's field lines to the top of the atmosphere. This holds true for the cusp aurora, but outside the cusp, the solar wind has no direct access. In addition, the main energy in the solar wind resides in positive ions; electrons only have about 0.5 eV (electron volt), and while in the cusp this may be raised to 50–100 eV, that still falls short of auroral energies.
  • After the Battle of Fredericksburg
    Battle of Fredericksburg
    The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought December 11–15, 1862, in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside...

     the lights could be seen from the battlefield that night. The Confederate army took it as a sign that God was on their side during the battle. It was very rare that one could see the Lights in Virginia.

Images



Images of auroras are significantly more common today due to the rise of use of digital camera
Digital camera
A digital camera is a camera that takes video or still photographs, or both, digitally by recording images via an electronic image sensor. It is the main device used in the field of digital photography...

s that have high enough sensitivities. Film and digital exposure to auroral displays is fraught with difficulties, particularly if faithfulness of reproduction is an objective. Due to the different spectral energy present, and changing dynamically throughout the exposure, the results are somewhat unpredictable. Different layers of the film emulsion respond differently to lower light levels, and choice of film can be very important. Longer exposures aggregate the rapidly changing energy and often blanket the dynamic attribute of a display. Higher sensitivity creates issues with graininess.

David Malin
David Malin
David Malin is a British-Australian astronomer and photographer.Malin trained as a chemist and originally worked in England as microscopist...

 pioneered multiple exposure using multiple filters for astronomical photography, recombining the images in the laboratory to recreate the visual display more accurately. For scientific research, proxies are often used, such as ultra-violet, and re-coloured to simulate the appearance to humans. Predictive techniques are also used, to indicate the extent of the display, a highly useful tool for aurora hunters. Terrestrial features often find their way into aurora images, making them more accessible and more likely to be published by the major websites. It is possible to take excellent images with standard film (using ISO ratings
Film speed
Film speed is the measure of a photographic film's sensitivity to light, determined by sensitometry and measured on various numerical scales, the most recent being the ISO system....

 between 100 and 400) and a single-lens reflex camera
Single-lens reflex camera
A single-lens reflex camera is a camera that typically uses a semi-automatic moving mirror system that permits the photographer to see exactly what will be captured by the film or digital imaging system, as opposed to pre-SLR cameras where the view through the viewfinder could be significantly...

 with full aperture
Aperture
In optics, an aperture is a hole or an opening through which light travels. More specifically, the aperture of an optical system is the opening that determines the cone angle of a bundle of rays that come to a focus in the image plane. The aperture determines how collimated the admitted rays are,...

, a fast lens (f1.4 50 mm, for example), and exposures between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the aurora's display strength.

Early work on the imaging of the auroras was done in 1949 by the University of Saskatchewan
University of Saskatchewan
The University of Saskatchewan is a Canadian public research university, founded in 1907, and located on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. An "Act to establish and incorporate a University for the Province of Saskatchewan" was passed by the...

 using the SCR-270 radar.

In traditional and popular culture


In Bulfinch's Mythology
Bulfinch's Mythology
Bulfinch's Mythology is a collection of the works of Thomas Bulfinch, named after him and published after his death. Bulfinch originally published his work as three volumes: The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes, published in 1855; The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur, published...

 from 1855 by Thomas Bulfinch
Thomas Bulfinch
Thomas Bulfinch was an American writer, born in Newton, Massachusetts. Bulfinch belonged to a well educated Bostonian merchant family of modest means. His father was Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Massachusetts State House in Boston and parts of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 there is the claim that in Norse mythology
Norse mythology
Norse mythology, a subset of Germanic mythology, is the overall term for the myths, legends and beliefs about supernatural beings of Norse pagans. It flourished prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, during the Early Middle Ages, and passed into Nordic folklore, with some aspects surviving...

:
The Valkyrior
Valkyrie
In Norse mythology, a valkyrie is one of a host of female figures who decides who dies in battle. Selecting among half of those who die in battle , the valkyries bring their chosen to the afterlife hall of the slain, Valhalla, ruled over by the god Odin...

 are warlike virgins, mounted upon horses and armed with helmets and spears. /.../ When they ride forth on their errand, their armour sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies, making what men call the "aurora borealis", or "Northern Lights".


While a striking notion, there is not a vast body of evidence in the Old Norse literature supporting this assertion. Although auroral activity is common over Scandinavia
Scandinavia
Scandinavia is a cultural, historical and ethno-linguistic region in northern Europe that includes the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, characterized by their common ethno-cultural heritage and language. Modern Norway and Sweden proper are situated on the Scandinavian Peninsula,...

 and Iceland
Iceland
Iceland , described as the Republic of Iceland, is a Nordic and European island country in the North Atlantic Ocean, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland also refers to the main island of the country, which contains almost all the population and almost all the land area. The country has a population...

 today, it is possible that the Magnetic North Pole was considerably further away from this region during the centuries before the documentation of Norse mythology, thus explaining the lack of references.

The first Old Norse account of norðrljós is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá
Konungs skuggsjá
Konungs skuggsjá is a Norwegian educational text from around 1250, an example of speculum literature that deals with politics and morality...

 from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland
Greenland
Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for...

, and he gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires, that the sun flares could reach around the world to its night side, or that glacier
Glacier
A glacier is a large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km² in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight...

s could store energy so that they eventually became fluorescent
Fluorescence
Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation of a different wavelength. It is a form of luminescence. In most cases, emitted light has a longer wavelength, and therefore lower energy, than the absorbed radiation...

.

In ancient Roman mythology, Aurora is the goddess of the dawn
Aurora (mythology)
Aurora is the Latin word for dawn, the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology and Latin poetry.Like Greek Eos and Rigvedic Ushas , Aurora continues the name of an earlier Indo-European dawn goddess, *Hausos....

, renewing herself every morning to fly across the sky, announcing the arrival of the sun. The persona of Aurora the goddess has been incorporated in the writings of Shakespeare, Lord Tennyson and Thoreau.

See also


  • Space weather
    Space weather
    Space weather is the concept of changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space or thespace from the Sun's atmosphere to the Earth's atmosphere. It is distinct from the concept ofweather within the Earth's planetary atmosphere...

  • List of plasma (physics) applications articles

External links



  • Aurora – FAQ.
  • Aurora – Forecasting.
  • Aurora Borealis – Predicting.
  • Solar Terrestrial Data – Online Converter – Northern Lights Latitude.
  • NASA – Carrington Super Flare.
  • Multimedia:
    • Aurora Photo Gallery – [Photos of 2009–2011 years].
    • Videos and Photos – Auroras at Night.
    • Video (04:49) – Aurora Borealis – How The Northern Lights Are Created.
    • Video (47:40) – Northern Lights – Documentary.
    • Video (01:42) – Northern Lights – Story of Geomagnetc Storm
      Geomagnetic storm
      A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium. A geomagnetic storm is a major component of space weather and provides the input for many other components of space weather...

       (Terschelling Island
      Terschelling
      Terschelling is a municipality and an island in the northern Netherlands, one of the West Frisian Islands.Waddenislanders are known for their resourcefulness in using anything and everything that washes ashore. With few trees to use for timber, most of the farms and barns are built with masts...

       – 6/7 April 2000).
    • Video (01:56) (Time-Lapse) – Aurora Borealis – Ground-Level View In Finnish Lapland 2011.
    • Video (00:27) (Time-Lapse) – Earth
      Earth
      Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

       and Auroras – Viewed From The International Space Station
      International Space Station
      The International Space Station is a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit. The ISS follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and Mir space stations, as the 11th space station launched, not including the Genesis I and II prototypes...

      .
    • Video (05:00) (Time-Lapse) – Earth
      Earth
      Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

       and Auroras – Viewed From The International Space Station
      International Space Station
      The International Space Station is a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit. The ISS follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and Mir space stations, as the 11th space station launched, not including the Genesis I and II prototypes...

      .
    • Auroras – Seen from Tromsø, Norway. October 2011
    • Auroras – As seen from Iceland. November 2011