The Aurora Borealis

by Malena Buker

There is more to the Aurora Borealis than what meets the eye. The display of colors, colloquially termed the Northern Lights, occurs at the Earth’s northern magnetic pole and is created by the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and protons and electrons from the sun. The charged particles stream in different directions and get pulled into a ring around the magnetic poles, where they clash.  When they finally relax, they release energy. This is what creates the array of colors. The particles are made mostly of Oxygen and Nitrogen. Oxygen emits green and sometimes red, while nitrogen is more orange and red.

Aurora Borealis is not only visible from Earth; the lights can also be seen from space! Satellites can photograph and even pass through them. Aurora Borealis also manifests on other planets. Auroras on Jupiter and Saturn are much stronger because their magnetic fields are much stronger. On Uranus, the auroras get wider because the magnetic field is oriented vertically and the planet rotates on its side. The lights can sometimes be visible further south or further north depending on the day.

The lights weren’t always viewed as appealing. In areas where they were not common, they used to be perceived as a bad omen. However, where they were better known, people thought that they were spirits playing in the sky. Vikings thought the array of lights was caused by fire around the Earth’s atmosphere, but the lights are not hot. Surprisingly, on a thermometer, the temperature of an Aurora Borealis display would drop far below zero degrees F because the energy involved is moving so slowly.

Unfortunately, if you attempt to see the Aurora Borealis, you are not guaranteed to get a spectacular show. The lights actually show up somewhat dim to the human eye, unless filled with reds, but a camera picks up the color much better since the lens is much more sensitive and can capture the image longer. There is no way to predict whether or not the Lights will manifest as a huge storm or a small fizzle, since it is pretty much impossible to measure a cloud of particles emerging from the sun.

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