The Sciences

Will you see the lights tonight?

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJan 24, 2012 4:45 PM

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The solar storm that erupted from the Sun yesterday reached the Earth today at about 15:00 UTC (10:00 a.m. Eastern US time). The wave of subatomic particles has been impacting the Earth's magnetic field, and we're starting to see some auroral activity:

Isn't that lovely? That was taken at 18:00 UTC today from a webcam in Abisko, Sweden. Can you see the handle of the Big Dipper right below the green curtain? [More aurora webcam sites are listed below.] The two biggest questions I'm getting on Twitter and Google+ are 1) is there any danger to this storm, and b) can I see the aurora from [my location]? First, no, we're not in any danger from this event. Even though it sounds terrifying -- an explosion the equivalent of billions of nuclear weapons launching hundreds of millions of tons of subatomic particles Earthward at speeds of million of kilometers per hour! -- we're pretty well protected down here on the surface. The Earth's magnetic field catches the particles, and most of those get dumped harmlessly in our upper atmosphere. That can create the aurora displays, but won't dose everyone with radiation and give them superpowers. Sorry.

[UPDATE (19:00 UTC): a ground current surge was reported in Sweden, but so far that's the only physical impact I've heard of.]

But the aurorae are pretty cool, and that brings us to the second question. The answer depends on where you are, and when it's dark out. As I write this, activity is on the rise. Here are some live webcams for aurorae, some of which are showing spectacular activity! Note they only show views when it's nighttime locally: LaplandFairbanks, AlaskaYellowknife, CanadaTromso, Norway As for seeing them wherever you are, that's tough to say. The Geophysical Institute has a map showing predicted activity for North America, for example, and NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center has a continuously updated map showing auroral activity for both hemispheres. Universe Today has a guide on how to see the aurorae, and Astronomy magazine has a discussion of aurorae, too. I'm getting conflicting info on potential aurorae tonight; the webcams in Scandinavia listed above are showing strong (and gorgeous) activity, but the prediction for Canada and the US appear moderate at best. But don't let that discourage you! If you have clear skies, go outside once it's good and dark and take a look. Even if there's no aurora, you can see Venus and the thin crescent Moon to the west right after sunset, and that's always a plus. And if things perk up, you might get a nice light show to the north, too!


Related posts: - The Sun aims a storm right at Earth: expect aurorae tonight! - Time lapse: The Aurora - JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse! - Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse

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