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Creation of the Northern and Southern Lights Revealed

The intense burning heat of the Sun constantly showers the Earth with a downpour of free electrons and positive ions (called the solar wind). The Earth is protected from this in part by its magnetosphere, a region in space experiencing a strong magnetic field. Physicists speak of this region as having magnetic field "lines" so as to more easily explain its properties. These lines are used conceptually to represent the forces and energies that make up and interact with the magnetic fields; similar to how a topographical map is filled with lines whose inter-distances represent land mass height.

The magnetosphere stores energy from the solar wind and swells larger with increasing energy storage. As it swells outwards, the gap between the magnetic field lines (conceptually) lessens and soon a critical point is reached where the two lines reconnect. When this limit is surpassed, the charged particles are sent flying back towards Earth where they collide with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere creating beautiful light shows. The color of light created corresponds with the types of atoms excited; atomic oxygen can create green and red displays while molecular and ionic nitrogen produce colors in the low red to high blue/violet range.

On February 26, 2008 the 5 NASA THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) satellites were aligned along the equator when an instance of Aurora Borealis began. While the satellites took measurements from space, 20 ground observatories recorded the Northern Lights along with the bombardment of particles into the atmosphere. These findings provide the first simultaneous space and ground measurements of substorm beginnings, showing magnetic reconnection as the cause.

See NASA's article here.

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