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Aurora Borealis
The First Documented Dramatic Space Phenomenon
Mikayla Austin
Alexandria Baker
Physics 1010
Salt Lake City Community College



Although the mystery of Aurora Borealis and Australis was recently cracked the dancing
lights have baffled man for thousands of years. The Auroras was the first documented
space phenomenon, tracing all the way back to 2600 B.C. in china. Centuries later
Galileo a famous philosopher and astronomer was the first to name the Auroras after
Aurora the roman goddess of dawn. While just recently in 2007 NASA launched five
satellites in a row that align every four days along the equator that observe the earth and
the sun. In 2008 THEMIS was credited the discovery of the space phenomenon that had
baffled humans for thousands of years the Auroras. Thanks to NASA, the THEMIS
mission, and researchers the mystical lights in the skies near the northern, and southern
poles, are actually charged particles from solar activity colliding with our Earths
atmosphere thus creating a seemingly endless band of color.

Abstract Figure


Aurora Borealis: The First Documented Dramatic Space Phenomenon

Hundreds of miles into Earths atmosphere, there are particles colliding to create
shimmering colors that stretch around the far ends of the Northern and Southern
Hemispheres. Once a mysterious phenomenon, modern science has cracked the mystery
to the dancing sky lights that have dazzled humans for centuries. The Auroras were one
of the first documented dramatic manifestations of space phenomena. The seemingly
endless stretches of color have influenced history, science, religion, folklore, and art since
the dawn of mankind.
In 1619 the famous philosopher and astronomer Galileo Galilei was credited to be
the first to name the brilliant array of color, Aurora the Roman goddess of dawn, while
Borealis originates from the Greek word Boreas meaning north winds. What we know of
the Aurora Borealis today greatly differs from our ancestors knowledge. In this section
of the paper we will analyze the beliefs of those different groups of people all around the

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north,

a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness
was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of
amber, out of the midst of the sky.
Ezekiel I. iv.


Writings regarding the Aurora Borealis can be traced back to Gaius Plinius
Caecilius Secundus (60 AD-113 AD; born in Italy, died in Turkey), of whom believed it
to be caused by ancient heroes battling in the skies. In Germany, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus
(born ad 56died c. 120), similarly, it being the cause of Valkyries riding through the
The name of the Aurora Borealis is said to have come from the ancient Greeks;
Aurora meaning Sunrise and the word Boreas, for Wind. For the visibility of the
Auroras as far South as Greece, the solar activity would have had to be exceptionally
strong, as they are generally seen only in the Northern parts of the world. The Aurora was
believed to be the sister of the sun and the moon (Helios and Seline), of whom rode her
rainbow chariot across the sky to alert them of the new day to come. Similarly, the
Romans believed Aurora to be the goddess of the dawn, hence the term dawn of the
North as well as dawn of the South. Other Southern Europe countries, such as Italy
and France saw it as a bad omen, bringing famine, death, sickness, and war.
Thousands of miles away, in Iceland, it was believed that the Aurora Borealis
would ease the pain of childbirth, but came with the warning not to stare directly into the
lights, for it would cause your child to be born cross-eyed. However, in Greenland the
aurora was thought to be the souls of the stillborn, or babies whom died at birth, dancing
in the northern skies. The country, Sweden held several beliefs of the northern lights.
They were thought of as a gift from the gods, emanating the warmth from volcanoes of
the north. In other places of the country thought they were reflections of large shoal and
bode, representing a bountiful harvest for the upcoming fishing season. In ancient
Finland, the Aurora Borealis were explained by the belief of a magical fox sweeping its


tail upon the vast snow of their land, trailing it across the sky, creating the miraculous
mixture red and orange. Revontulet, translated from Finnish to English means fox
fires, of which they used to identify the Aurora Borealis, in their time.
The Lapps, and the Smi people, who lived North of the Arctic Circle, had a more
elaborate reason behind the aurora, compared to their neighbors in Finland. The lights
were believed to be the souls of the deceased, and tradition for all those to show their
respect to departed by remaining solemn, and quiet while the lights blazed within sky.
Those who were disrespectful, by disregarding the lights or engaging in entertainment,
were said to receive bad luck that would result in that persons sickness or even death. It
was also believed that if you whistled under the lights they would come closer to you,
allowing you to be taken away with them. The Lapps believed the fires were magical,
and they took advantage, dressing the drums of the Lappish Shamans with Runes,
thought to embody, or represent the powers of the Northern Lights, or what they referred
to as, guovssahasah, thereby harnessing its energy. Upon the collective respect towards
the light, there was a calming effect upon the Lapps people. The duration of the lights
was thought to be the cause of many conflict resolutions.
The first occurrence of the term Norrljs (Norse for, Northern Lights) is in the
book Konungs Skuggsj (The King's Mirror, known in Latin as Speculum Regalae),
written in 1250 AD, about 50 years after the Viking Age had ended. There are few
accounts of sightings of the Aurora Borealis from the accounts of the Vikings. There have
been many assumptions for this, but they are just that: assumptions. Just as there are few
recordings of geysers, steam, and hot springs by the Vikings, despite our knowledge of
their definite existence during the time, explains that even though they didnt write about


them, doesnt mean they didnt see them. Some believe that the Rainbow Bridge between
Earth and Asgard, known as Bifrost, as written in the Prose Edda, was thought to have
been inspired by the great lights of the Aurora Borealis. However, during the time of the
Viking Age (ca. 800-1000 A.D), the Aurora Borealis was seen less in Scandinavia, as the
geomagnetic pole traveled closer to Northern Canada, and then Siberia. This was one
reason many Vikings may have missed out, on its beauty. The Aurora being visible to the
naked eye only during the hours of the night; another plausible explanation is the belief
carried by the Vikings, that when traveling in the night time you were subject to the
victimization by the walking dead and Elf-ridersdiscouraging most, if not all, to stay
indoors past sunset.
The Aurora Borealis travels in a 1500-mile circular radius around the center of
the geomagnetic pole of the world, of which today move 40 km each year, along with the
lights. The movement of the geomagnetic pole is due to the unstable currents of iron alloy
within the core of the Earth. Despite the geomagnetic pole moving away from Viking
Scandinavia there were a large number of sunspots occurring, of which illuminate its
intensity, and visibility, even as far South as Spain. Auroras are especially vivid during
solar storms, and sunspot activity, because of the sunspots increasing the energy of the
solar wind. However, between 1130 and 1192, the recordings of sunspots dropped to
practically zero. By the year 1192 the highest number of recorded sunspots occurred, with
the immense amounts of energy and matter coming from the sun. This could have been
because of the technological advances of the time. From 1192 until 1375, there was a
stillness of solar activity, and was called the time of the quiet sun. During the time of
the Quiet Sun, there was a vast decrease of vegetation, and a surge of cold, and unsettled


climates without the Northern Hemisphere. Without the sunspots, and the magnetic
activity and solar winds that followed, the Aurora Borealis essentially disappeared.
Despite the weak solar activity during the Viking Age, when the Auroras would appear,
they would be of an alarmingly red color, due to the strength of the solar winds; where as
now, they appear with a mixture of blues, greens and sometimes purple, due to the change
of the particles in the atmosphere. The winter of 1118, in Iceland was described as,
roavetr, or the red winter because of the vast illumination of the red auroras; the last
record of the red aurora was in February of 2014.
There was another stretch of time where the Aurora Borealis did not appear,
particularly because of the absence of sunspots. This time-period was coined as the
Maunder Minimum, and lasted approximately from 1645 A.D., until March 6, 1716
(about 70 years). Upon its emergence, people described the sight as a coming of the end,
for many, if not all, had never witnessed such a site.
Lastly, in North America, Canada, and Alaska, we come across many beliefs, for
the many cultures therein. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin said that the lights
signified the location of the spirits of great hunters and fishermen, otherwise known as,
manabai'wok which translates to giants. In Alaska, the Inuit as well as the Eskimo tribes
near the Yukon River, believed the lights to be spirits of the animals they killed, such as
beluga whales, seal, salmon, and deer. The Labrador Eskimos thought the lights to
torches lit by spirits playing soccer with a walrus skull. Coincidentally, the island of
Nunavik, believed it to be the cause of a walrus passing around a human skull. In
Southeastern Alaska, the Kwakiutl and Tlingit believed the lights to be human spirits.
Similarly, in North America, the Cree Indians believed the aurora to be a major part of the


circle of life, holding the spirits of loved ones that wish to communicate to their living
predecessors. The Algonquin attributed the lights to be a great fire made by their (or
rather, our, for their belief) creator Nanahbozho. Nanahbozho conjured the fire as a
symbol to remind the people of his existence and his love for his creation. The Makah
Indians of Washington, said that the lights were created by dwarves, so that they may use
the fire of the lights to boil whale blubber. Also, the Mandan peoples of North Dakota
believed that the lights were fires built by great warriors and used to boil their enemies.
The Fox Indians thought negatively towards the lights, thinking them to be spirits of slain
enemies, returning for revenge.
Asia, surprisingly was exposed to the lights as well, on rare occasions. In 2600
B.C. Fu-Pao in China was the first to document and write describe a person interpretation
of the lights.

Figure 1: Fu-Pao

Early Chinese accounts of the Aurora Borealis were said to be the cause of a
battle between the dragons of good and evil; their fire illuminating the Empire sky. Figure


1 portrays this adaptation from Fu-Pao, as previously mentioned. However, in Japan it

was said that a child conceived under the aurora would be blessed with good looks,
fortune, and intelligence.
There are many beliefs that stem from the ideologies of people throughout time,
and to this day. The Aurora Borealis, however broken down by science, still remains to be
a mystical sight, that continues to amaze and fill people with admiration.

Its a curious thing about the universe, behind the most stunning sights to
behold, lies some of the most challenging problems in physics.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson

During the late 1700s the Auroras baffled many while inspiring scientists to be the
first to crack the mystery behind the natural phenomenon. Decades later in 1790, Henry
Cavendish used a technique called triangulation to determine the height in elevation that
the Auroras were produced at. He calculated that most sightings are seen between fifty
and seventy miles up, and can actually reach about four hundred miles in the atmosphere.
A little over a century later scientist Kristian Birkeland conducted an experiment called
the, Terella Experiment, proving the Aurora light was caused by the flow of gaseous
currents in the upper atmosphere. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s a popular
hypothesis believed that the Auroras was somehow connected to solar activity. A major
thanks to NASAs mission THEMIS, this hypothesis was later proved correct. THEMIS is
a five-spacecraft mission that was dedicated to understanding the science behind auroras.


The six unique layers of Earths perfectly balanced blanket like atmosphere
distinguished it from other asteroids or pieces of rock floating along in space. Invisible to
the naked eye within the first 400 miles upward into the atmosphere contains a chemical
compound crucial to the creation Aurora Borealis colors. Within the first ten miles up into
the atmosphere are called the troposphere. Another thirty miles after that begins the
stratosphere, and the next fifty miles make up the mesosphere. Four hundred miles up and
beyond are the thermosphere, ionosphere, and the exosphere. The gas composition of
these layers is of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and traces of argon, neon, and helium.
The sun, the center of our solar system, is an extremely hot star with moody solar
weather. Solar activity is produced by the suns magnetic field that warms and cools spots
all over the star, causing activity as shown in Figure 2, like solar flares, coronal mass
ejections, and high-speed solar wind.

Figure 2: Solar Flare


When solar activity is high in radiation, the sun emits highly charged atoms that
race into space at towards to Earths magnetic poles alarming rates. The space
environment of our entire solar system, both near Earth and far beyond Pluto, is
determined by the suns activity, which cycles and fluctuates through time. This solar
activity allows the constant flow of charged particles from the sun and the other millions
of todays known and even unknown stars. Since its birth, the sun has completed a solar
cycle about once every eleven years. This cycle can be measured by the amount of
magnetic flux that rises to the surface of the sun.

Figure 3: Sunspots

This cycle of activity can also be referred to as the sunspot cycle. At its minimum,
few if any sunspots are visible, and at maximum there can be up to one hundred
sunspots visible at a time. We can see in Figure 3 several clusters of sunspots, all of
which last anywhere from one to twenty-one days. The reason sunspots appear darker
than the surrounding surface area of the star is because they are actually cooler in
temperature than the surrounding area of the suns surface. The temperature of the sun
surface is about 5,400 degrees Celsius, but in a large sunspot on a stars surface can drop
to about 4,000 degrees Celsius.
About Every 24 hours, the Earths molten core is made up of iron and nickel that
gently mixes creating a strong magnetic field with two poles on the opposite ends of the


earth. As we see in Figure 4, these magnetic fields are generally what protect us from the
suns dangerous radiation winds. Near the poles, the charged electrons and protons that
make up the dangerous winds are magnetically attracted to the poles where the Earths
magnetic fields are the weakest. Although most of the charged electrons and protons are
deflected by the magnetic field the particles that are deflected can be drawn towards and
though the weak points of magnetic field near the Earths poles.

Figure 4: Magnetic

The merging of these charged particles and the earths atmosphere immediately
increases a higher intensity rate of theses atoms and then quickly drops back to the


original intensity. As soon as the electrons begin to lower their energy they release a
photon; light tearing the skies apart that can light even the darkest of nights.
The concentration of nitrogen and oxygen varies with height and temperature.
Due to the high amount of oxygen and charged particles at about 60 feet in the
atmosphere a yellowish green hue aurora is commonly spotted. While between two
hundred and four hundred feet solar gas and nitrogen collide to create a rare sighting of
reds, violets, and blue auroras, as depicted in Figure 5. During the maximum of a solar
cycle these colors can be more common.

Figure 5: Gas & Nitrogen


Scientists found that the aurora moves uniquely with the vibrating field line, and
the magnetic field lines moved back and forth continuously in roughly a six-minute cycle,
and the aurora brightened and dimmed at the same pace. The brightening and dimming of
the aurora was seen to correspond to the motion of the electrons and magnetic field lines.
During this event, the electrons are forced violently towards the Earth, then bounce off
the back of the magnetosphere. Therefore the aurora brightens when the wave of
electrons slams into the upper atmosphere, and dims when it bounces back off.


Figure 6: Aurora in Space

As Figure 6 so beautifully presents us, the most memorable way to experience the
Aurora Borealis has to be from space while orbiting the earth. For optimal viewing
locations, it is recommended to go as far north and away from light pollution as possible.
The most documented sightings are in the northern hemisphere Alaska, Canada, Norway,
Sweden, and Finland. Rumor has it that in a year of maximum solar cycle the northern
lights can be seen year around. Sightings of the southern lights are not as documented or
sought after as it is known that the lights are concentrated in the northern hemisphere
around Antarctica. There are few places to catch the southern Aurora Australis in action
due to little landmass. Argentina has the most southern city in the world making it a
prime location to view the southern lights along with the Georgia Islands, and New
Zealand. Along with location timing also plays a large role in attempting to view the
auroras. The last solar cycle maximum was in late 2012 and 2013. Solar maximums are


the best times to see both the northern and southern lights. For centuries when the solar
cycle reaches its maximum the winds hurls stronger solar winds towards the Earth
pushing the colorful Auroras closer to the equator. If it is not the year of the solar
maximum, the northern and southern lights are still within grasp. The Earth is slightly
leaning on its axis, hiding the northern and southern hemisphere from the sun. Each
hemisphere is in the darkness once a year and in return the northern and southern
hemisphere are graced with curtains of colorful lights.
In conclusion to this analytical, research paper in regards to the Aurora Borealis,
or Northern Lights, the striking colors have motivated humans for centuries to witness
and attempt to understand what can best be described as the dancing lights in the sky. The
earliest documentation of the Auroras dates back to 2600 B.C., in Ancient China, but
without question has baffled many before then, and will continue doing so as long as
people remain unaware of its true nature. Our ancestors across the globe utilized the
Auroras as inspiration for folklore, art, and religion. In recent history scientist studied the
natural phenomena to better understand our Earth, Sun, solar system, and to better inform
those seeking such knowledge. However, whether people decide to look for the scientific
answers in regards to the miraculous lights, as long as they remain in existence, they will
continue to amaze, and inspire all who fortune upon its beauty.

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Figure 7

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