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A Light Show in the Sky

For several days in May, an aurora borealis decorated the night sky over much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Dramatic streaks of green and purple in the night sky above mountains

James Pendleton/USDA

This photo shows the aurora borealis as it appeared in Montana on May 10, 2024.

Who needs movies or video games when there’s a light show happening in the sky? For several days starting on May 10, an aurora borealis, also called the northern lights, was visible in a large part of the Northern Hemisphere. And the light show may soon return.

During an aurora, the night sky lights up with a beautiful display of bright pink, purple, and green colors. Sometimes the colors flash, flicker, or shift. Auroras occur due to activity on the Sun, such as solar flares (which are basically huge explosions) and coronal mass ejections (which are ejections of electrical charged particles). When charged particles from the Sun seep into Earth’s atmosphere, there can be geomagnetic storms that appear in the sky as auroras. Auroras are fairly common in the far northern and southern parts of our planet.

But in May, two massive sunspots produced particularly strong solar flares, spawning a geomagnetic storm so intense that the northern lights could be seen as far south as the southern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.

People all over the Northern Hemisphere ventured outside to catch a glimpse of the light show. No two auroras are the same; the sky gives a different show every time, which is why even seasoned aurora viewers were captivated.

“I’ve never seen so many vivid colors dancing across the sky,” United Kingdom resident Daisy Dobrijevic told Space.com. Dobrijevic, a Space.com editor, has seen auroras in northern Sweden, where they’re more common. But it was special to witness one so close to home. “What a tremendous treat indeed,” she said.

People who missed the mid-May aurora might not be out of luck. Since the sunspots continue to do their thing, scientists say more auroras could decorate the night sky in 2024. 

Check out the slideshow for more photos from the aurora borealis!

Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0), Michael S. (lostincode), ercwttmn (CC BY-ND 2.0), Matt Brown (CC BY 2.0), Martin Bravenboer (CC BY 2.0), Jacob W. Frank/NPS

Did You Know?

Side by side of Jupiter and Saturn, each with glowing, circular shapes around their north poles.

NASA/ESA/J. Nichols (University of Leicester); ESA/Hubble, NASA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, J. DePasquale (STScI), L. Lamy (Observatoire de Paris) (CC BY 4.0)

Auroras don’t only occur on Earth. Scientists have observed them on Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured the images above, which show auroras on Jupiter (left) and Saturn in 2017 and 2018.

Hello, Sunshine!

Two single celled organisms are next to a multicellular organism and one of them says the other organism is too good for them.
© Mark Garlick—Science Photo Library/Getty Images; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Auroras come about through the interaction of solar particles and Earth’s magnetic field. Is it possible that these interactions could have led to the evolution of life forms millions of years ago?

A recent study uncovered evidence that around 591 million years ago, Earth’s magnetic field became extremely weak for several million years, allowing tons of solar radiation to reach Earth. The radiation destroyed the hydrogen atoms in the atmosphere, leaving behind more oxygen. Scientists believe these unusual conditions allowed for the development of the planet’s first multicellular organisms. 

These early animals were unlike any of the animals that exist today. In fact, they were pretty much shapeless. But they paved the way for the development of today’s complex, multicellular organisms.

Catch the Next Light Show

© Sjo—Creatas Video+/Getty Images Plus

You can catch a glimpse of the northern lights in the video above, but if you’re hoping to experience an aurora in person, here are a few tips.

  • Be in the know. Scientists can forecast these phenomena several days in advance, so check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website for the latest news.
  • Study maps. NOAA creates maps showing where auroras can be observed.
  • Use a phone camera. Many times, auroras are visible to the naked eye. Unlike eclipses, auroras are safe to look at. But if an aurora has been forecast in your area and it’s not visible, try taking a photo with a phone. Cell phone cameras are more sensitive to light than our eyes are. 

Meanwhile, you can find more information about auroras at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

luminous

PART OF SPEECH:

adjective

Definition:

: producing or seeming to produce light : shining

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