Northern lights shining bright in the arctic winter, Mt. Ulfarsfell, Iceland


Northern lights shining bright in the arctic winter, Mt. Ulfarsfell, Iceland

Photo by: Arctic-Images


Launching Rockets Into the Aurora Borealis - and Other Stories About the Northern Lights

By: Aditi Rajagopal

Those that live in the Arctic Circle echo that no words can do justice to the sheer experience of the ‘celestial dance’ that occurs in the skies.

March 06, 2020

Poets, writers, and artists have tried to capture the magic of the Aurora Borealis, the famed Northern Lights for millennia. Some have come close to recreating the glory of the glowing skies, but those that live in the Arctic Circle echo that no words can do justice to the sheer experience of the ‘celestial dance’ that occurs above their ancestral homes.

So as winter sets in and the northern hemisphere prepares for darkness in the months to come, the Aurora Borealis (named after the Roman goddess and meaning the ‘morning light from the north’) is truly a light at the end of the tunnel. And one that means different things to those who witness it. An Inuit legend holds that the lights are torches held up to guide souls of those recently departed into the light. Another goes that they are the brightly colored spirits of children yet to be born, playing a game together in the heavens. An Algonquin myth says that the creator of the earth, Nanahbozho traveled north after his job was done, and builds fires to remind his people that he still thinks of them. Many people of the Arctic say the lights call them home.

“I have been happy to hear Alaskans say that when they see the lights, they know they are home,” says Dr Kristin A. Lynch, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Dartmouth. “I feel that way too...scientifically.”

Couple looking at Northern Lights over Lake Kuusamo, Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, Finland


Couple looking at Northern Lights over Lake Kuusamo, Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, Finland

Photo by: Samuli Vainionpää

Samuli Vainionpää

Modern science named and described the lights as far back as the 17th century. Though the oldest known depiction of the lights was found to be from in 2600 B.C. in China: "Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, saw strong lightning moving around the star Su...and the light illuminated the whole area.” The present understanding is that the lights are caused when charged particles from the sun-blown towards the earth on the 'solar wind' - strike atoms in Earth's atmosphere (their path is determined by its magnetic field). This causes electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons relax, they release photons, and the grand dance ensues, ebbing and flowing to its own tune.

And colors are determined by the gas that the electrons come in contact with, and how much energy is exchanged. The most common colors are yellow and green, when mainly oxygen is involved. At higher altitudes, it could turn pink or red and nitrogen gives off a blue or purple light. Oxygen and nitrogen molecules can also emit ultraviolet light, which is only be detected by special cameras. Auroras can read reach up to 400 miles up and the patterns the colors make can dramatically change within just a few minutes.

Lynch has been interested in auroras since she was an undergraduate student, and now works with a team of scientists, students and researchers, including some at NASA, whom she has worked with to launch rockets into the glow. “The rocket makes local observations of the electric and magnetic field effects, and the particles (ions, electrons) involved with the electrodynamics of the aurora.” she said. Lynch wants to learn about all that accounts for the forces driving the aurora. “The visible Aurora that we see is a chemical effect in the upper atmosphere, but the control of the lights is electrodynamics from higher up,” she added.

Beyond this, the team is trying to determine the implications of this on earth, and the rest of the universe. “Active aurora is an indication of active space weather conditions,” said Lynch. “Other planets (including Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn and presumably exoplanets also!) have aurora. It is something we can see from far away, so if we know how to interpret what we see, we can learn about the planetary environment.”

Strong Auroras are often accompanied by a geomagnetic storm that affects the earth in different ways. One spectral show that lasted almost two days, beginning on March 13, 1989 was a great example of this. The blast of particles from the sun’s flare was so strong that the lights could be seen from as far south as the Caribbean island of Dominica - where auroras are only seen once in a thousand nights. The geomagnetic activity was also so strong that it caused a surge on the power grid of Quebec and caused a blackout across the entire Canadian province.

Dr. Biogio Forte is a professor at the University of Bath studies this - what it is about the electromagnetic activity that causes such surges, and how to prevent such disruptions. “This type of research is important because we need to understand the interaction between the sun and earth in order to be able to protect our society from hazards. This is really challenging due to the complexity of the problem” he said via email. Working out of Norway, Forte and his team made a breakthrough in 2017 when they were studying the interfere of the aurora with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) signals - which are used by transport and aviation industries. Where it was once believed that the presence of plasma turbulence within the Northern Lights was responsible for causing GNSS disruptions, Forte’s research found that turbulence does not exist, suggesting new, undiscovered mechanisms are responsible. “This is the first time it has been shown that turbulence does not take place within the Northern Lights and this new knowledge will enable new technological solutions to overcome these outages,” said Forte.

While science trudges forward answering questions about the impact of the lights on the earth and the universe's systems, the Northern Lights continue to capture the minds and imaginations of all those who are lucky to witness it - even momentarily. While the cycle for the brightest auroras are currently in their downswing, scientists predict that the next bright cycle will come about in 2025 - a good goal to work towards for a trip to the Arctic Pole.

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