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Auroras - What Powers the Greatest Light Show on Earth

Auroras - What Powers the Greatest Light Show on Earth

Ratings: (0)|Views: 242 |Likes:
Published by Boris Petrovic
A few times a day, a gigantic explosion shakes the Earth's magnetic shield, triggering a chain of events that lights up the polar skies with dazzling auroras. These explosions are substorms, and how they happen has long been a mystery. Until now, no one has been able to explain how they gather the energy to create such spectacular displays, or what happens to trigger them.

Now a flotilla of NASA satellites is finally providing answers. They could help us understand not only one of nature's greatest spectacles, but also help predict more serious space weather, which can endanger satellites and astronauts, and even scramble electrical systems on Earth.

The northern and southern lights have fascinated people throughout human history, and there has been no shortage of attempts to explain them. Galileo described these auroras as sunlight reflected in vapours rising from the Earth, while Descartes proposed reflections from ice crystals instead. In the late 1600s, Edmond Halley was the first to correctly link the aurora to the Earth's magnetic field, though it wasn't until the 1950s that scientists confirmed that the display is created when electrons are funnelled by magnetic fields into the upper atmosphere.

Auroras, substorms and more hazardous kinds of space weather all begin with the solar wind - a thin, hot gas of charged particles ejected from the sun, laced with magnetic fields and threaded with electric currents. This magnetic hurricane is blowing over the planet at 1.6 million kilometres per hour, but we don't feel so much as a breeze. That's because most of it is deflected by the Earth's magnetic field, which maintains a zone of relatively calm weather around the planet, called the magnetosphere. As the solar wind blows past the Earth, it pushes and stretches this protective shield out on the night side of the planet, like hair blown in the wind.

A few times a day, a gigantic explosion shakes the Earth's magnetic shield, triggering a chain of events that lights up the polar skies with dazzling auroras. These explosions are substorms, and how they happen has long been a mystery. Until now, no one has been able to explain how they gather the energy to create such spectacular displays, or what happens to trigger them.

Now a flotilla of NASA satellites is finally providing answers. They could help us understand not only one of nature's greatest spectacles, but also help predict more serious space weather, which can endanger satellites and astronauts, and even scramble electrical systems on Earth.

The northern and southern lights have fascinated people throughout human history, and there has been no shortage of attempts to explain them. Galileo described these auroras as sunlight reflected in vapours rising from the Earth, while Descartes proposed reflections from ice crystals instead. In the late 1600s, Edmond Halley was the first to correctly link the aurora to the Earth's magnetic field, though it wasn't until the 1950s that scientists confirmed that the display is created when electrons are funnelled by magnetic fields into the upper atmosphere.

Auroras, substorms and more hazardous kinds of space weather all begin with the solar wind - a thin, hot gas of charged particles ejected from the sun, laced with magnetic fields and threaded with electric currents. This magnetic hurricane is blowing over the planet at 1.6 million kilometres per hour, but we don't feel so much as a breeze. That's because most of it is deflected by the Earth's magnetic field, which maintains a zone of relatively calm weather around the planet, called the magnetosphere. As the solar wind blows past the Earth, it pushes and stretches this protective shield out on the night side of the planet, like hair blown in the wind.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Boris Petrovic on Apr 12, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/20/2013

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