A few nights ago, areas of the northern United States got a rare treat. The Northern Lights (aurora borealis – “dawn of the north”) danced further south than usual after a coronal mass ejection. Science doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to the aurora borealis, but they do know more than our ancestors, who saw the lights as a supernatural force.
When solar activity results in the release of a cloud of gas, the particles shoot like an invisible comet through space. When the cloud reaches Earth’s atmosphere, our planet’s magnetic field successfully deflects most of the particles, except where the magnetic field is weakest: the north and south poles. When the gaseous particles bump into oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they produce a dazzling light. They appear to us earth-dwellers as brilliant illuminations of rippling curtains, steady glows, undulating arcs and patches, or traveling pulses in an array of colors. The altitude where particles collide determines the colors we observe, because of different color wavelengths given off by molecules at different heights.
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