A super solar flare

The sun.  Earth’s primary source of energy, a near perfect spherical ball of hot plasma constantly in motion with coronal-mass ejections spewing high-speed streams of solar wind outward.

A day or two after a solar flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun outward into the solar system, here on earth, it may the opportunity to see one of natures most spectacular light shows—the aurora borealis.


Northern Lights West Hawk Manitoba

It was September 2, 1859 that astronomer Richard Carrington first discovered solar flares and made the connection between flares and the occurrence of aurora borealis or the northern lights.

Nasa Science News

At 11:18 AM on the cloudless morning of Thursday, September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington—widely acknowledged to be one of England’s foremost solar astronomers—was in his well-appointed private observatory. Just as usual on every sunny day, his telescope was projecting an 11-inch-wide image of the sun on a screen, and Carrington skillfully drew the sunspots he saw.

Right: Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on Sept. 1, 1859. Copyright: Royal Astronomical Society: more.

On that morning, he was capturing the likeness of an enormous group of sunspots. Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped. Realizing that he was witnessing something unprecedented and “being somewhat flurried by the surprise,” Carrington later wrote, “I hastily ran to call someone to witness the exhibition with me. On returning within 60 seconds, I was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled.” He and his witness watched the white spots contract to mere pinpoints and disappear.

It was 11:23 AM. Only five minutes had passed.

Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight.

Carrington’s sighting foreshadowed a new field of study: space weather.  While the primary focus of observing and studying space weather is usually for scientific purposes, casual sky watchers can use the same information to increase their chance of observing auroras (northern lights).  spaceweather.com is an excellent website that tracks solar flares, geomagnetic storms, coronal mass ejections and big sunspots. space weather.com then provides a forecast on the chance of auroras being in the night sky.

For a small fee they also provide an alert service that will send you text messages on the solar activity. They also notify you on flybys of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle, planetary alignments, eclipses, meteor showers so you always know where to look in the sky to see them. How cool is that?

aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Galileo in 1619

The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.


Northern Lights West Hawk Lake Manitoba

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