The glorious pyrotechnics of the "Northern Lights" get their start about 93 million miles away, on the sun. An aurora borealis (aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere) is precipitated by explosions on the surface of the sun, sometimes starting as solar flares, according to Robert Nemiroff, an astrophysicist at Michigan Technological University and coauthor of NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website.
"The aurorae happen when these high-energy particles bap into atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, typically oxygen," Nemiroff said. Light is emitted as part of the reaction. Those particles can also wreak havoc. "The plasma cloud can cause the Earth's magnetic field to fluctuate," Nemiroff said. "At worst, that can knock out satellites and even power grids."
"We are nearing the solar maximum, which is when the sun is at its most active," he said. Solar maximums come around every 11 years, but no one knows why. "You can have solar flares and aurorae during the solar minimum, but we get more now because the sun's magnetic field is tangled up and poking through the surface, releasing plasma," said Nemiroff.
The Daily Galaxy via Michigan Technological University
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