What is the difference between aurorae and electroglow?

What is the difference between aurorae and electroglow?

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One of the discoveries of Voyager 2 at Uranus was a phenomenon called "electroglow", which as I understand it is related to charged particles interacting with the atmosphere that cause the emission of ultraviolet radiation. What I am not clear on is how this process is different to the production of aurorae. Is there some clear difference between the two processes that allows them to be distinguished?

Aurorae are caused by charged particles (usually electrons) being drawn into the polar atmosphere by the planet's magnetic field.

Airglow is caused by just photons interacting with the atmosphere.

Electroglow requires both electrons and photons.

Source: The Free Library (article is under express copyright, see the paragraph that starts "Voyager 2")

Understanding pulsating aurorae

This image of a colourful aurora was taken in Delta Junction, Alaska, on 10 April 2015. All aurorae are created by energetic electrons, which rain down from Earth’s magnetic bubble and interact with particles in the upper atmosphere to create glowing lights that stretch across the sky. Image courtesy of Sebastian Saarloos. Thanks to a lucky conjunction of two satellites, a ground-based array of all-sky cameras, and some spectacular aurorae boreales, researchers have uncovered evidence for an unexpected role that electrons have in creating the dancing aurorae. Though humans have been seeing aurorae for thousands of years, we have only recently begun to understand what causes them.

In this study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists compared ground-based videos of pulsating aurorae &mdash a certain type of aurora that appears as patches of brightness regularly flickering on and off &mdash with satellite measurements of the numbers and energies of electrons raining down towards the surface from inside Earth’s magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere. The team found something unexpected: A drop in the number of low-energy electrons, long thought to have little or no effect, corresponds with especially fast changes in the shape and structure of pulsating aurorae.

“Without the combination of ground and satellite measurements, we would not have been able to confirm that these events are connected,” said Marilia Samara, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author on the study.

This all-sky movie shows a time lapse of a pulsating aurora on 3 January 2012. Scientists compared the video, taken in Poker Flat, Alaska, over the course of three minutes, with satellite measurements of the numbers and energies of electrons raining down from the magnetosphere to better understand how electrons transfer energy to the upper atmosphere and create the aurorae. The black mark traces the satellite foot point &mdash the place where the satellite is magnetically connected to the aurora &mdash of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite. Movie credits: NASA. Pulsating aurorae are so-called because their features shift and brighten in distinct patches, rather than elongated arcs across the sky like active aurorae. However, their appearance isn’t the only difference. Though all aurorae are caused by energetic particles &mdash typically electrons &mdash speeding down into Earth’s atmosphere and colliding brilliantly with the atoms and molecules in the air, the source of these electrons is different for pulsating aurorae and active aurorae.

Active aurorae happen when a dense wave of solar material &mdash such as a high-speed stream of solar wind or a large cloud that exploded off the Sun called a coronal mass ejection &mdash hits Earth’s magnetic field, causing it to rattle. This rattling releases electrons that have been trapped in the tail of that magnetic field, which stretches out away from the Sun. Once released, these electrons go racing down towards the poles, then they interact with particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere to create glowing lights that stretch across the sky in long ropes.

On the other hand, the electrons that set off pulsating aurorae are sent spinning to the surface by complicated wave motions in the magnetosphere. These wave motions can happen at any time, not just when a wave of solar material rattles the magnetic field.

“The hemispheres are magnetically connected, meaning that any time there is pulsating aurora near the north pole, there is also pulsating aurora near the south pole,” said Robert Michell, a space physicist at NASA Goddard and one of the study’s authors. “Electrons are constantly pinging back and forth along this magnetic field line during an aurora event.”

The electrons that travel between the hemispheres are not the original higher-energy electrons rocketing in from the magnetosphere. Instead, these are what’s called low-energy secondary electrons, meaning that they are slower particles that have been kicked up out in all directions only after a collision from the first set of higher-energy electrons. When this happens, some of the secondary electrons shoot back upwards along the magnetic field line, zipping towards the opposite hemisphere.

When studying their pulsating aurora videos, researchers found that the most distinct change in the structure and shape of the aurora happened during times when far fewer of these secondary electrons were shooting in along hemispheric magnetic field lines.

“It turns out that secondary electrons could very well be a big piece of the puzzle to how, why, and when the energy that creates aurorae is transferred to the upper atmosphere,” said Samara.

However, most current simulations of how the aurora form don’t take secondary electrons into account. This is because the energy of the individual particles is so much lower than the electrons coming directly from the magnetosphere, leading many to assume that their contribution to the glowing northern lights is negligible. However, their cumulative effect is likely much larger.

“We need targeted observations to figure out exactly how to incorporate these low-energy secondary electrons into our models,” said Samara. “But it seems clear that they may very well end up playing a more important role than previously thought.”

Northern & Southern Aurorae Are Siblings, But Not Twins

Seen the Northern Lights and you’ve seen them all, hm? Not so.

It is commonly assumed that the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and the aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere are mirror images of each other — but new research has revealed differences between the events.

The aurorae, commonly known as the Northern and Southern Lights, are spectacular natural light displays in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The phenomenon is caused by charged particles from the solar wind striking atoms and molecules in the atmosphere.

It’s intuitive to think the Northern and Southern Lights are identical, because the charged particles causing the aurora follow the symmetric magnetic field lines connecting the two hemispheres.

But study co-authors Nikolai Østgaard and Karl Magnus Laundal, both of the University of Bergen in Norway, report in the journal Nature this week that there are differences between the phenomena.

“Here we report observations that clearly contradict the common assumption about symmetric aurora: intense spots are seen at dawn in the Northern summer Hemisphere, and at dusk in the Southern winter Hemisphere,” they write. “The asymmetry is interpreted in terms of inter-hemispheric currents related to seasons, which have been predicted but hitherto had not been seen.”

Østgaard and Laundal based their report on observations from a new set of global imaging cameras at each pole. The authors suggest that the observed asymmetry confirms the existence of inter-hemispheric, field-aligned currents related to the seasons, which had been predicted but never before observed.


The word "aurora" is derived from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, who travelled from east to west announcing the coming of the sun. [2] Ancient Greek poets used the name metaphorically to refer to dawn, often mentioning its play of colours across the otherwise dark sky (e.g., "rosy-fingered dawn"). [3]

Most auroras occur in a band known as the "auroral zone", [4] which is typically 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles at all local times (or longitudes), most clearly seen at night against a dark sky. A region that currently displays an aurora is called the "auroral oval", a band displaced by the solar wind towards the night side of Earth. [5] Early evidence for a geomagnetic connection comes from the statistics of auroral observations. Elias Loomis (1860), [6] and later Hermann Fritz (1881) [7] and Sophus Tromholt (1881) [8] in more detail, established that the aurora appeared mainly in the auroral zone.

In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis or the northern lights. The former term was coined by Galileo in 1619, from the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. [9] [10] The southern counterpart, the aurora australis or the southern lights, has features almost identical to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone. [11] The aurora australis is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia. The aurora borealis is visible from being close to the center of the Arctic Circle such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

A geomagnetic storm causes the auroral ovals (north and south) to expand, bringing the aurora to lower latitudes. The instantaneous distribution of auroras ("auroral oval") [4] is slightly different, being centered about 3–5° nightward of the magnetic pole, so that auroral arcs reach furthest toward the equator when the magnetic pole in question is in between the observer and the Sun. The aurora can be seen best at this time, which is called magnetic midnight.

Auroras seen within the auroral oval may be directly overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the poleward horizon as a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Auroras also occur poleward of the auroral zone as either diffuse patches or arcs, [12] which can be subvisual.

Auroras are occasionally seen in latitudes below the auroral zone, when a geomagnetic storm temporarily enlarges the auroral oval. Large geomagnetic storms are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after the peak. [13] [14] An electron spirals (gyrates) about a field line at an angle that is determined by its velocity vectors, parallel and perpendicular, respectively, to the local geomagnetic field vector B. This angle is known as the "pitch angle" of the particle. The distance, or radius, of the electron from the field line at any time is known as its Larmor radius. The pitch angle increases as the electron travels to a region of greater field strength nearer to the atmosphere. Thus, it is possible for some particles to return, or mirror, if the angle becomes 90° before entering the atmosphere to collide with the denser molecules there. Other particles that do not mirror enter the atmosphere and contribute to the auroral display over a range of altitudes. Other types of auroras have been observed from space for example, "poleward arcs" stretching sunward across the polar cap, the related "theta aurora", [15] and "dayside arcs" near noon. These are relatively infrequent and poorly understood. Other interesting effects occur such as flickering aurora, "black aurora" and subvisual red arcs. In addition to all these, a weak glow (often deep red) observed around the two polar cusps, the field lines separating the ones that close through Earth from those that are swept into the tail and close remotely.

Images Edit

The altitudes where auroral emissions occur were revealed by Carl Størmer and his colleagues, who used cameras to triangulate more than 12,000 auroras. [16] They discovered that most of the light is produced between 90 and 150 km above the ground, while extending at times to more than 1000 km. Images of auroras are significantly more common today [ when? ] than in the past due to the increase in the use of digital cameras that have high enough sensitivities. [17] Film and digital exposure to auroral displays is fraught with difficulties. Due to the different color spectra present, and the temporal changes occurring during the exposure, the results are somewhat unpredictable. Different layers of the film emulsion respond differently to lower light levels, and choice of a film can be very important. Longer exposures superimpose rapidly changing features, and often blanket the dynamic attribute of a display. Higher sensitivity creates issues with graininess.

David Malin pioneered multiple exposure using multiple filters for astronomical photography, recombining the images in the laboratory to recreate the visual display more accurately. [18] For scientific research, proxies are often used, such as ultraviolet, and color-correction to simulate the appearance to humans. Predictive techniques are also used, to indicate the extent of the display, a highly useful tool for aurora hunters. [19] Terrestrial features often find their way into aurora images, making them more accessible and more likely to be published by major websites. [20] Excellent images are possible with standard film (using ISO ratings between 100 and 400) and a single-lens reflex camera with full aperture, a fast lens (f1.4 50 mm, for example), and exposures between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the aurora's brightness. [21]

Early work on the imaging of the auroras was done in 1949 by the University of Saskatchewan using the SCR-270 radar.

Aurora during a geomagnetic storm that was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on 24 May 2010, taken from the ISS

Diffuse aurora observed by DE-1 satellite from high Earth orbit

Forms of auroras Edit

According to Clark (2007), there are four main forms that can be seen from the ground, from least to most visible: [22]

  • A mild glow, near the horizon. These can be close to the limit of visibility, [23] but can be distinguished from moonlit clouds because stars can be seen undiminished through the glow.
  • Patches or surfaces that look like clouds.
  • Arcs curve across the sky.
  • Rays are light and dark stripes across arcs, reaching upwards by various amounts.
  • Coronas cover much of the sky and diverge from one point on it.

Brekke (1994) also described some auroras as curtains. [24] The similarity to curtains is often enhanced by folds within the arcs. Arcs can fragment or break up into separate, at times rapidly changing, often rayed features that may fill the whole sky. These are also known as discrete auroras, which are at times bright enough to read a newspaper by at night. [25]

These forms are consistent with auroras being shaped by Earth's magnetic field. The appearances of arcs, rays, curtains, and coronas are determined by the shapes of the luminous parts of the atmosphere and a viewer's position. [26]

Colors and wavelengths of auroral light Edit

  • Red: At its highest altitudes, excited atomic oxygen emits at 630 nm (red) low concentration of atoms and lower sensitivity of eyes at this wavelength make this color visible only under more intense solar activity. The low number of oxygen atoms and their gradually diminishing concentration is responsible for the faint appearance of the top parts of the "curtains". Scarlet, crimson, and carmine are the most often-seen hues of red for the auroras.
  • Green: At lower altitudes, the more frequent collisions suppress the 630 nm (red) mode: rather the 557.7 nm emission (green) dominates. A fairly high concentration of atomic oxygen and higher eye sensitivity in green make green auroras the most common. The excited molecular nitrogen (atomic nitrogen being rare due to the high stability of the N2 molecule) plays a role here, as it can transfer energy by collision to an oxygen atom, which then radiates it away at the green wavelength. (Red and green can also mix together to produce pink or yellow hues.) The rapid decrease of concentration of atomic oxygen below about 100 km is responsible for the abrupt-looking end of the lower edges of the curtains. Both the 557.7 and 630.0 nm wavelengths correspond to forbidden transitions of atomic oxygen, a slow mechanism responsible for the graduality (0.7 s and 107 s respectively) of flaring and fading.
  • Blue: At yet lower altitudes, atomic oxygen is uncommon, and molecular nitrogen and ionized molecular nitrogen take over in producing visible light emission, radiating at a large number of wavelengths in both red and blue parts of the spectrum, with 428 nm (blue) being dominant. Blue and purple emissions, typically at the lower edges of the "curtains", show up at the highest levels of solar activity. [27] The molecular nitrogen transitions are much faster than the atomic oxygen ones.
  • Ultraviolet: Ultraviolet radiation from auroras (within the optical window but not visible to virtually all [clarification needed] humans) has been observed with the requisite equipment. Ultraviolet auroras have also been seen on Mars, [28] Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Infrared: Infrared radiation, in wavelengths that are within the optical window, is also part of many auroras. [28][29]
  • Yellow and pink are a mix of red and green or blue. Other shades of red, as well as orange, may be seen on rare occasions yellow-green is moderately common. [clarification needed] As red, green, and blue are the primary colors of additive synthesis of colors, in theory, practically any color might be possible, but the ones mentioned in this article comprise a virtually exhaustive list.

Changes with time Edit

Auroras change with time. Over the night, they begin with glows and progress towards coronas, although they may not reach them. They tend to fade in the opposite order. [24]

At shorter time scales, auroras can change their appearances and intensity, sometimes so slowly as to be difficult to notice, and at other times rapidly down to the sub-second scale. [25] The phenomenon of pulsating auroras is an example of intensity variations over short timescales, typically with periods of 2–20 seconds. This type of aurora is generally accompanied by decreasing peak emission heights of about 8 km for blue and green emissions and above average solar wind speeds (

Other auroral radiation Edit

In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), discovered in 1972. [31] Ionospheric absorption makes AKR only observable from space. X-ray emissions, originating from the particles associated with auroras, have also been detected. [32]

Aurora noise Edit

Aurora noise, similar to a crackling noise, begins about 70 m (230 ft) above Earth's surface and is caused by charged particles in an inversion layer of the atmosphere formed during a cold night. The charged particles discharge when particles from the Sun hit the inversion layer, creating the noise. [33] [34]

Atypical auroras Edit


In 2016, more than fifty citizen science observations described what was to them an unknown type of aurora which they named "STEVE", for "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement". STEVE is not an aurora but is caused by a 25 km (16 mi) wide ribbon of hot plasma at an altitude of 450 km (280 mi), with a temperature of 6,000 K (5,730 °C 10,340 °F) and flowing at a speed of 6 km/s (3.7 mi/s) (compared to 10 m/s (33 ft/s) outside the ribbon). [35]

Picket-fence aurora Edit

The processes that cause STEVE also are associated with a picket-fence aurora, although the latter can be seen without STEVE. [36] [37] It is an aurora because it is caused by precipitation of electrons in the atmosphere but it appears outside the auroral oval, [38] closer to the equator than typical auroras. [39] When the picket-fence aurora appears with STEVE, it is below. [37]

Dune aurora Edit

First reported in 2020 [40] [41] and confirmed in 2021 [42] [43] the dune aurora phenomenon was discovered [44] by Finnish citizen scientists. It consists of regularly spaced, parallel stripes of brighter emission in the green diffuse aurora which give the impression of sand dunes. [45] The phenomenon is believed to be caused by the modulation of atomic oxygen density by a large-scale atmospheric wave travelling horizontally in a waveguide in the mesosphere in presence of electron precipitation. [42]

A full understanding of the physical processes which lead to different types of auroras is still incomplete, but the basic cause involves the interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetosphere. The varying intensity of the solar wind produces effects of different magnitudes but includes one or more of the following physical scenarios.

  1. A quiescent solar wind flowing past Earth's magnetosphere steadily interacts with it and can both inject solar wind particles directly onto the geomagnetic field lines that are 'open', as opposed to being 'closed' in the opposite hemisphere, and provide diffusion through the bow shock. It can also cause particles already trapped in the radiation belts to precipitate into the atmosphere. Once particles are lost to the atmosphere from the radiation belts, under quiet conditions, new ones replace them only slowly, and the loss-cone becomes depleted. In the magnetotail, however, particle trajectories seem constantly to reshuffle, probably when the particles cross the very weak magnetic field near the equator. As a result, the flow of electrons in that region is nearly the same in all directions ("isotropic") and assures a steady supply of leaking electrons. The leakage of electrons does not leave the tail positively charged, because each leaked electron lost to the atmosphere is replaced by a low energy electron drawn upward from the ionosphere. Such replacement of "hot" electrons by "cold" ones is in complete accord with the second law of thermodynamics. The complete process, which also generates an electric ring current around Earth, is uncertain.
  2. Geomagnetic disturbance from an enhanced solar wind causes distortions of the magnetotail ("magnetic substorms"). These 'substorms' tend to occur after prolonged spells (on the order of hours) during which the interplanetary magnetic field has had an appreciable southward component. This leads to a higher rate of interconnection between its field lines and those of Earth. As a result, the solar wind moves magnetic flux (tubes of magnetic field lines, 'locked' together with their resident plasma) from the day side of Earth to the magnetotail, widening the obstacle it presents to the solar wind flow and constricting the tail on the night-side. Ultimately some tail plasma can separate ("magnetic reconnection") some blobs ("plasmoids") are squeezed downstream and are carried away with the solar wind others are squeezed toward Earth where their motion feeds strong outbursts of auroras, mainly around midnight ("unloading process"). A geomagnetic storm resulting from greater interaction adds many more particles to the plasma trapped around Earth, also producing enhancement of the "ring current". Occasionally the resulting modification of Earth's magnetic field can be so strong that it produces auroras visible at middle latitudes, on field lines much closer to the equator than those of the auroral zone.

The details of these phenomena are not fully understood. However, it is clear that the prime source of auroral particles is the solar wind feeding the magnetosphere, the reservoir containing the radiation zones and temporarily magnetically-trapped particles confined by the geomagnetic field, coupled with particle acceleration processes. [46]

Auroral particles Edit

The immediate cause of the ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents leading to auroral emissions was discovered in 1960, when a pioneering rocket flight from Fort Churchill in Canada revealed a flux of electrons entering the atmosphere from above. [47] Since then an extensive collection of measurements has been acquired painstakingly and with steadily improving resolution since the 1960s by many research teams using rockets and satellites to traverse the auroral zone. The main findings have been that auroral arcs and other bright forms are due to electrons that have been accelerated during the final few 10,000 km or so of their plunge into the atmosphere. [48] These electrons often, but not always, exhibit a peak in their energy distribution, and are preferentially aligned along the local direction of the magnetic field.

Electrons mainly responsible for diffuse and pulsating auroras have, in contrast, a smoothly falling energy distribution, and an angular (pitch-angle) distribution favouring directions perpendicular to the local magnetic field. Pulsations were discovered to originate at or close to the equatorial crossing point of auroral zone magnetic field lines. [49] Protons are also associated with auroras, both discrete and diffuse.

Auroras and the atmosphere Edit

Auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth's upper atmosphere, above 80 km (50 mi), from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen atoms and nitrogen based molecules returning from an excited state to ground state. [50] They are ionized or excited by the collision of particles precipitated into the atmosphere. Both incoming electrons and protons may be involved. Excitation energy is lost within the atmosphere by the emission of a photon, or by collision with another atom or molecule:

oxygen emissions green or orange-red, depending on the amount of energy absorbed. nitrogen emissions blue, purple or red blue and purple if the molecule regains an electron after it has been ionized, red if returning to ground state from an excited state.

Oxygen is unusual in terms of its return to ground state: it can take 0.7 seconds to emit the 557.7 nm green light and up to two minutes for the red 630.0 nm emission. Collisions with other atoms or molecules absorb the excitation energy and prevent emission, this process is called collisional quenching. Because the highest parts of the atmosphere contain a higher percentage of oxygen and lower particle densities, such collisions are rare enough to allow time for oxygen to emit red light. Collisions become more frequent progressing down into the atmosphere due to increasing density, so that red emissions do not have time to happen, and eventually, even green light emissions are prevented.

This is why there is a color differential with altitude at high altitudes oxygen red dominates, then oxygen green and nitrogen blue/purple/red, then finally nitrogen blue/purple/red when collisions prevent oxygen from emitting anything. Green is the most common color. Then comes pink, a mixture of light green and red, followed by pure red, then yellow (a mixture of red and green), and finally, pure blue.

Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes. [51]

Auroras and the ionosphere Edit

Bright auroras are generally associated with Birkeland currents (Schield et al., 1969 [52] Zmuda and Armstrong, 1973 [53] ), which flow down into the ionosphere on one side of the pole and out on the other. In between, some of the current connects directly through the ionospheric E layer (125 km) the rest ("region 2") detours, leaving again through field lines closer to the equator and closing through the "partial ring current" carried by magnetically trapped plasma. The ionosphere is an ohmic conductor, so some consider that such currents require a driving voltage, which an, as yet unspecified, dynamo mechanism can supply. Electric field probes in orbit above the polar cap suggest voltages of the order of 40,000 volts, rising up to more than 200,000 volts during intense magnetic storms. In another interpretation, the currents are the direct result of electron acceleration into the atmosphere by wave/particle interactions.

Ionospheric resistance has a complex nature, and leads to a secondary Hall current flow. By a strange twist of physics, the magnetic disturbance on the ground due to the main current almost cancels out, so most of the observed effect of auroras is due to a secondary current, the auroral electrojet. An auroral electrojet index (measured in nanotesla) is regularly derived from ground data and serves as a general measure of auroral activity. Kristian Birkeland [54] deduced that the currents flowed in the east–west directions along the auroral arc, and such currents, flowing from the dayside toward (approximately) midnight were later named "auroral electrojets" (see also Birkeland currents).

Earth is constantly immersed in the solar wind, a rarefied flow of magnetized hot plasma (a gas of free electrons and positive ions) emitted by the Sun in all directions, a result of the two-million-degree temperature of the Sun's outermost layer, the corona. The quiescent solar wind reaches Earth with a velocity typically around 400 km/s, a density of around 5 ions/cm 3 and a magnetic field intensity of around 2–5 nT (for comparison, Earth's surface field is typically 30,000–50,000 nT). During magnetic storms, in particular, flows can be several times faster the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) may also be much stronger. Joan Feynman deduced in the 1970s that the long-term averages of solar wind speed correlated with geomagnetic activity. [55] Her work resulted from data collected by the Explorer 33 spacecraft.

The solar wind and magnetosphere consist of plasma (ionized gas), which conducts electricity. It is well known (since Michael Faraday's work around 1830) that when an electrical conductor is placed within a magnetic field while relative motion occurs in a direction that the conductor cuts across (or is cut by), rather than along, the lines of the magnetic field, an electric current is induced within the conductor. The strength of the current depends on a) the rate of relative motion, b) the strength of the magnetic field, c) the number of conductors ganged together and d) the distance between the conductor and the magnetic field, while the direction of flow is dependent upon the direction of relative motion. Dynamos make use of this basic process ("the dynamo effect"), any and all conductors, solid or otherwise are so affected, including plasmas and other fluids.

The IMF originates on the Sun, linked to the sunspots, and its field lines (lines of force) are dragged out by the solar wind. That alone would tend to line them up in the Sun-Earth direction, but the rotation of the Sun angles them at Earth by about 45 degrees forming a spiral in the ecliptic plane, known as the Parker spiral. The field lines passing Earth are therefore usually linked to those near the western edge ("limb") of the visible Sun at any time. [56]

The solar wind and the magnetosphere, being two electrically conducting fluids in relative motion, should be able in principle to generate electric currents by dynamo action and impart energy from the flow of the solar wind. However, this process is hampered by the fact that plasmas conduct readily along magnetic field lines, but less readily perpendicular to them. Energy is more effectively transferred by the temporary magnetic connection between the field lines of the solar wind and those of the magnetosphere. Unsurprisingly this process is known as magnetic reconnection. As already mentioned, it happens most readily when the interplanetary field is directed southward, in a similar direction to the geomagnetic field in the inner regions of both the north magnetic pole and south magnetic pole.

Auroras are more frequent and brighter during the intense phase of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections increase the intensity of the solar wind. [57]

Magnetosphere Edit

Earth's magnetosphere is shaped by the impact of the solar wind on Earth's magnetic field. This forms an obstacle to the flow, diverting it, at an average distance of about 70,000 km (11 Earth radii or Re), [58] producing a bow shock 12,000 km to 15,000 km (1.9 to 2.4 Re) further upstream. The width of the magnetosphere abreast of Earth is typically 190,000 km (30 Re), and on the night side a long "magnetotail" of stretched field lines extends to great distances (> 200 Re).

The high latitude magnetosphere is filled with plasma as the solar wind passes Earth. The flow of plasma into the magnetosphere increases with additional turbulence, density, and speed in the solar wind. This flow is favored by a southward component of the IMF, which can then directly connect to the high latitude geomagnetic field lines. [59] The flow pattern of magnetospheric plasma is mainly from the magnetotail toward Earth, around Earth and back into the solar wind through the magnetopause on the day-side. In addition to moving perpendicular to Earth's magnetic field, some magnetospheric plasma travels down along Earth's magnetic field lines, gains additional energy and loses it to the atmosphere in the auroral zones. The cusps of the magnetosphere, separating geomagnetic field lines that close through Earth from those that close remotely allow a small amount of solar wind to directly reach the top of the atmosphere, producing an auroral glow.

On 26 February 2008, THEMIS probes were able to determine, for the first time, the triggering event for the onset of magnetospheric substorms. [60] Two of the five probes, positioned approximately one third the distance to the Moon, measured events suggesting a magnetic reconnection event 96 seconds prior to auroral intensification. [61]

Geomagnetic storms that ignite auroras may occur more often during the months around the equinoxes. It is not well understood, but geomagnetic storms may vary with Earth's seasons. Two factors to consider are the tilt of both the solar and Earth's axis to the ecliptic plane. As Earth orbits throughout a year, it experiences an interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) from different latitudes of the Sun, which is tilted at 8 degrees. Similarly, the 23-degree tilt of Earth's axis about which the geomagnetic pole rotates with a diurnal variation changes the daily average angle that the geomagnetic field presents to the incident IMF throughout a year. These factors combined can lead to minor cyclical changes in the detailed way that the IMF links to the magnetosphere. In turn, this affects the average probability of opening a door [ colloquialism ] through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth's inner magnetosphere and thereby enhance auroras. Recent evidence in 2021 has shown that individual separate substorms may in fact be correlated networked communities. [62]

Just as there are many types of aurora, there are many different mechanisms that accelerate auroral particles into the atmosphere. Electron aurora in Earth's auroral zone (i.e. commonly visible aurora) can be split into two main categories with different immediate causes: diffuse and discrete aurora. Diffuse aurora appear relatively structureless to an observer on the ground, with indistinct edges and amorphous forms. Discrete aurora are structured into distinct features with well-defined edges such as arcs, rays and coronas they also tend to be much brighter than the diffuse aurora.

In both cases, the electrons that eventually cause the aurora start out as electrons trapped by the magnetic field in Earth's magnetosphere. These trapped particles bounce back and forth along magnetic field lines and are prevented from hitting the atmosphere by the magnetic mirror formed by the increasing magnetic field strength closer to Earth. The magnetic mirror's ability to trap a particle depends on the particle's pitch angle: the angle between its direction of motion and the local magnetic field. An aurora is created by processes that decrease the pitch angle of many individual electrons, freeing them from the magnetic trap and causing them to hit the atmosphere.

In the case of diffuse auroras, the electron pitch angles are altered by their interaction with various plasma waves. Each interaction is essentially wave-particle scattering the electron energy after interacting with the wave is similar to its energy before interaction, but the direction of motion is altered. If the final direction of motion after scattering is close to the field line (specifically, if it falls within the loss cone) then the electron will hit the atmosphere. Diffuse auroras are caused by the collective effect of many such scattered electrons hitting the atmosphere. The process is mediated by the plasma waves, which become stronger during periods of high geomagnetic activity, leading to increased diffuse aurora at those times.

In the case of discrete auroras, the trapped electrons are accelerated toward Earth by electric fields that form at an altitude of about 4000–12000 km in the "auroral acceleration region". The electric fields point away from Earth (i.e. upward) along the magnetic field line. [63] Electrons moving downward through these fields gain a substantial amount of energy (on the order of a few keV) in the direction along the magnetic field line toward Earth. This field-aligned acceleration decreases the pitch angle for all of the electrons passing through the region, causing many of them to hit the upper atmosphere. In contrast to the scattering process leading to diffuse auroras, the electric field increases the kinetic energy of all of the electrons transiting downward through the acceleration region by the same amount. This accelerates electrons starting from the magnetosphere with initially low energies (10s of eV or less) to energies required to create an aurora (100s of eV or greater), allowing that large source of particles to contribute to creating auroral light.

The accelerated electrons carry an electric current along the magnetic field lines (a Birkeland current). Since the electric field points in the same direction as the current, there is a net conversion of electromagnetic energy into particle energy in the auroral acceleration region (an electric load). The energy to power this load is eventually supplied by the magnetized solar wind flowing around the obstacle of Earth's magnetic field, although exactly how that power flows through the magnetosphere is still an active area of research. [64] While the energy to power the aurora is ultimately derived from the solar wind, the electrons themselves do not travel directly from the solar wind into Earth's auroral zone magnetic field lines from these regions do not connect to the solar wind, so there is no direct access for solar wind electrons.

Some auroral features are also created by electrons accelerated by Alfvén waves. At small wavelengths (comparable to the electron inertial length or ion gyroradius), Alfvén waves develop a significant electric field parallel to the background magnetic field this can accelerate electrons due to a process of Landau damping. If the electrons have a speed close to that of the wave's phase velocity, they are accelerated in a manner analogous to a surfer catching an ocean wave. [65] [66] This constantly-changing wave electric field can accelerate electrons along the field line, causing some of them to hit the atmosphere. Electrons accelerated by this mechanism tend to have a broad energy spectrum, in contrast to the sharply-peaked energy spectrum typical of electrons accelerated by quasi-static electric fields.

In addition to the discrete and diffuse electron aurora, proton aurora is caused when magnetospheric protons collide with the upper atmosphere. The proton gains an electron in the interaction, and the resulting neutral hydrogen atom emits photons. The resulting light is too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Other aurora not covered by the above discussion include transpolar arcs (formed poleward of the auroral zone), cusp aurora (formed in two small high-latitude areas on the dayside) and some non-terrestrial auroras.

The discovery of a 1770 Japanese diary in 2017 depicting auroras above the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto suggested that the storm may have been 7% larger than the Carrington event, which affected telegraph networks. [67] [68]

The auroras that resulted from the "great geomagnetic storm" on both 28 August and 2 September 1859, however, are thought to be the most spectacular in recent recorded history. In a paper to the Royal Society on 21 November 1861, Balfour Stewart described both auroral events as documented by a self-recording magnetograph at the Kew Observatory and established the connection between the 2 September 1859 auroral storm and the Carrington–Hodgson flare event when he observed that "It is not impossible to suppose that in this case our luminary was taken in the act." [69] The second auroral event, which occurred on 2 September 1859, as a result of the exceptionally intense Carrington–Hodgson white light solar flare on 1 September 1859, produced auroras, so widespread and extraordinarily bright that they were seen and reported in published scientific measurements, ship logs, and newspapers throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. It was reported by The New York Times that in Boston on Friday 2 September 1859 the aurora was "so brilliant that at about one o'clock ordinary print could be read by the light". [70] One o'clock EST time on Friday 2 September would have been 6:00 GMT the self-recording magnetograph at the Kew Observatory was recording the geomagnetic storm, which was then one hour old, at its full intensity. Between 1859 and 1862, Elias Loomis published a series of nine papers on the Great Auroral Exhibition of 1859 in the American Journal of Science where he collected worldwide reports of the auroral event. [6]

That aurora is thought to have been produced by one of the most intense coronal mass ejections in history. It is also notable for the fact that it is the first time where the phenomena of auroral activity and electricity were unambiguously linked. This insight was made possible not only due to scientific magnetometer measurements of the era, but also as a result of a significant portion of the 125,000 miles (201,000 km) of telegraph lines then in service being significantly disrupted for many hours throughout the storm. Some telegraph lines, however, seem to have been of the appropriate length and orientation to produce a sufficient geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field to allow for continued communication with the telegraph operator power supplies switched off. [71] The following conversation occurred between two operators of the American Telegraph Line between Boston and Portland, Maine, on the night of 2 September 1859 and reported in the Boston Traveler:

Boston operator (to Portland operator): "Please cut off your battery [power source] entirely for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. – Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the batteries, as the aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead."

The conversation was carried on for around two hours using no battery power at all and working solely with the current induced by the aurora, and it was said that this was the first time on record that more than a word or two was transmitted in such manner. [70] Such events led to the general conclusion that

The effect of the aurorae on the electric telegraph is generally to increase or diminish the electric current generated in working the wires. Sometimes it entirely neutralizes them, so that, in effect, no fluid [current] is discoverable in them. The aurora borealis seems to be composed of a mass of electric matter, resembling in every respect, that generated by the electric galvanic battery. The currents from it change coming on the wires, and then disappear the mass of the aurora rolls from the horizon to the zenith. [72]

An aurora was described by the Greek explorer Pytheas in the 4th century BC. [73] Seneca wrote about auroras in the first book of his Naturales Quaestiones, classifying them, for instance as pithaei ('barrel-like') chasmata ('chasm') pogoniae ('bearded') cyparissae ('like cypress trees'), and describing their manifold colors. He wrote about whether they were above or below the clouds, and recalled that under Tiberius, an aurora formed above the port city of Ostia that was so intense and red that a cohort of the army, stationed nearby for fire duty, galloped to the rescue. [74] It has been suggested that Pliny the Elder depicted the aurora borealis in his Natural History, when he refers to trabes, chasma, 'falling red flames' and 'daylight in the night'. [75]

The history of China has rich, and possibly the oldest, records of the aurora borealis. On an autumn around 2000 BC, according to a legend, a young woman named Fubao was sitting alone in the wilderness by a bay, when suddenly a "magical band of light" appeared like "moving clouds and flowing water", turning into a bright halo around the Big Dipper, which cascaded a pale silver brilliance, illuminating the earth and making shapes and shadows seem alive. Moved by this sight, Fubao became pregnant and gave birth to a son, the Emperor Xuanyuan, known legendarily as the initiator of Chinese culture and the ancestor of all Chinese people. In the Shanhaijing, a creature named 'Shilong' is described to be like a red dragon shining in the night sky with a body a thousand miles long. In ancient times, the Chinese did not have a fixed word for the aurora, so it was named according to the different shapes of the aurora, such as "Sky Dog (“天狗”)", "Sword/Knife Star (“刀星”)", "Chiyou banner (“蚩尤旗”)", "Sky's Open Eyes (“天开眼”)", and "Stars like Rain (“星陨如雨”)".

In Japanese folklore, pheasants were considered messengers from heaven. However, researchers from Japan's Graduate University for Advanced Studies and National Institute of Polar Research claimed in March 2020 that red pheasant tails witnessed across the night sky over Japan in 620 A.D., might be a red aurora produced during a magnetic storm. [76]

In the traditions of Aboriginal Australians, the Aurora Australis is commonly associated with fire. For example, the Gunditjmara people of western Victoria called auroras puae buae ('ashes'), while the Gunai people of eastern Victoria perceived auroras as bushfires in the spirit world. The Dieri people of South Australia say that an auroral display is kootchee, an evil spirit creating a large fire. Similarly, the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia refer to auroras seen over Kangaroo Island as the campfires of spirits in the 'Land of the Dead'. Aboriginal people in southwest Queensland believe the auroras to be the fires of the Oola Pikka, ghostly spirits who spoke to the people through auroras. Sacred law forbade anyone except male elders from watching or interpreting the messages of ancestors they believed were transmitted through an aurora. [77]

In Scandinavia, the first mention of norðrljós (the northern lights) is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland, and he gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires that the sun flares could reach around the world to its night side or that glaciers could store energy so that they eventually became fluorescent. [78]

Walter William Bryant wrote in his book Kepler (1920) that Tycho Brahe "seems to have been something of a homœopathist, for he recommends sulfur to cure infectious diseases 'brought on by the sulphurous vapours of the Aurora Borealis ' ". [79]

In 1778, Benjamin Franklin theorized in his paper Aurora Borealis, Suppositions and Conjectures towards forming an Hypothesis for its Explanation that an aurora was caused by a concentration of electrical charge in the polar regions intensified by the snow and moisture in the air: [80] [81] [82]

May not then the great quantity of electricity brought into the polar regions by the clouds, which are condens'd there, and fall in snow, which electricity would enter the earth, but cannot penetrate the ice may it not, I say (as a bottle overcharged) break thro' that low atmosphere and run along in the vacuum over the air towards the equator, diverging as the degrees of longitude enlarge, strongly visible where densest, and becoming less visible as it more diverges till it finds a passage to the earth in more temperate climates, or is mingled with the upper air?

Observations of the rhythmic movement of compass needles due to the influence of an aurora were confirmed in the Swedish city of Uppsala by Anders Celsius and Olof Hiorter. In 1741, Hiorter was able to link large magnetic fluctuations with an aurora being observed overhead. This evidence helped to support their theory that 'magnetic storms' are responsible for such compass fluctuations. [83]

A variety of Native American myths surround the spectacle. The European explorer Samuel Hearne traveled with Chipewyan Dene in 1771 and recorded their views on the ed-thin ('caribou'). According to Hearne, the Dene people saw the resemblance between an aurora and the sparks produced when caribou fur is stroked. They believed that the lights were the spirits of their departed friends dancing in the sky, and when they shone brightly it meant that their deceased friends were very happy. [84]

During the night after the Battle of Fredericksburg, an aurora was seen from the battlefield. The Confederate Army took this as a sign that God was on their side, as the lights were rarely seen so far south. The painting Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church is widely interpreted to represent the conflict of the American Civil War. [85]

A mid 19th-century British source says auroras were a rare occurrence before the 18th century. [86] It quotes Halley as saying that before the aurora of 1716, no such phenomenon had been recorded for more than 80 years, and none of any consequence since 1574. It says no appearance is recorded in the Transactions of the French Academy of Sciences between 1666 and 1716. And that one aurora recorded in Berlin Miscellany for 1797 was called a very rare event. One observed in 1723 at Bologna was stated to be the first ever seen there. Celsius (1733) states the oldest residents of Uppsala thought the phenomenon a great rarity before 1716. The period between approximately 1645 to 1715 corresponds to the Maunder minimum in sunspot activity.

In Robert W. Service's satirical poem "The Ballad of the Northern Lights" (1908) a Yukon prospector discovers that the aurora is the glow from a radium mine. He stakes his claim, then goes to town looking for investors.

In the early 1900s, the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland laid the foundation [ colloquialism ] for current understanding of geomagnetism and polar auroras.

Both Jupiter and Saturn have magnetic fields that are stronger than Earth's (Jupiter's equatorial field strength is 4.3 Gauss, compared to 0.3 Gauss for Earth), and both have extensive radiation belts. Auroras have been observed on both gas planets, most clearly using the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Cassini and Galileo spacecraft, as well as on Uranus and Neptune. [87]

The aurorae on Saturn seem, like Earth's, to be powered by the solar wind. However, Jupiter's aurorae are more complex. Jupiter's main auroral oval is associated with the plasma produced by the volcanic moon Io, and the transport of this plasma within the planet's magnetosphere. An uncertain fraction of Jupiter's aurorae are powered by the solar wind. In addition, the moons, especially Io, are also powerful sources of aurora. These arise from electric currents along field lines ("field aligned currents"), generated by a dynamo mechanism due to the relative motion between the rotating planet and the moving moon. Io, which has active volcanism and an ionosphere, is a particularly strong source, and its currents also generate radio emissions, which have been studied since 1955. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, auroras over Io, Europa and Ganymede have all been observed.

Auroras have also been observed on Venus and Mars. Venus has no magnetic field and so Venusian auroras appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed over the full disc of the planet. [88] A Venusian aurora originates when electrons from the solar wind collide with the night-side atmosphere.

An aurora was detected on Mars, on 14 August 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express. The aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria, in the region of 177° East, 52° South. The total size of the emission region was about 30 km across, and possibly about 8 km high. By analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor, scientists observed that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized. This correlation indicated that the origin of the light emission was a flux of electrons moving along the crust magnetic lines and exciting the upper atmosphere of Mars. [87] [89]

Between 2014 and 2016, cometary auroras were observed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by multiple instruments on the Rosetta spacecraft. [90] [91] The auroras were observed at far-ultraviolet wavelengths. Coma observations revealed atomic emissions of hydrogen and oxygen caused by the photodissociation (not photoionization, like in terrestrial auroras) of water molecules in the comet's coma. [91] The interaction of accelerated electrons from the solar wind with gas particles in the coma is responsible for the aurora. [91] Since comet 67P has no magnetic field, the aurora is diffusely spread around the comet. [91]

Exoplanets, such as hot Jupiters, have been suggested to experience ionization in their upper atmospheres and generate an aurora modified by weather in their turbulent tropospheres. [92] However, there is no current detection of an exoplanet aurora.

The first ever extra-solar auroras were discovered in July 2015 over the brown dwarf star LSR J1835+3259. [93] The mainly red aurora was found to be a million times brighter than the Northern Lights, a result of the charged particles interacting with hydrogen in the atmosphere. It has been speculated that stellar winds may be stripping off material from the surface of the brown dwarf to produce their own electrons. Another possible explanation for the auroras is that an as-yet-undetected body around the dwarf star is throwing off material, as is the case with Jupiter and its moon Io. [94]

What is the difference between aurorae and electroglow? - Astronomy

Why and how do aurora get created in the night sky of the arctic and antarctic? Why are they usually green in color or occasionally also red or pink or purple. What gives them different colors, and can we see them on other planets?

The aurora are caused by charged particles from the solar wind hitting atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. The Sun emits a stream of electrons and protons called the solar wind. These particles interact with the Earth's magnetic field and are funneled towards the magnetic poles, which is why aurora are visible at high latitudes.

The different colors in the aurora come from different atoms being excited. Green aurora come from the excitation of oxygen. Red and blue aurora come from the excitation and ionization of nitrogen atoms.

Aurora has been seen on several planets in our solar system. For example, aurora have been observed on Jupiter, Jupiter's moons Io, and Ganymede, or Saturn.

Just for fun, here is a beautiful video of the aurora viewed from the International Space Station.

This page was last updated on June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Laura Spitler

Laura Spitler was a graduate student working with Prof. Jim Cordes. After graduating in 2013, she went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany. She works on a range of projects involving the time variability of radio sources, including pulsars, binary white dwarfs and ETI. In particular she is interested in building digital instruments and developing signal processing techniques that allow one to more easily identify and classify transient sources.

What is the difference between aurorae and electroglow? - Astronomy

Sometime in 1937 or 1938 I observed the aurora borealis from my bedroom window in East Providence, Rhode Island. I cannot prove this and I need to. A friend on the East Coast (Boston) is planning a trip to northern Canada in order to see this phenomenon. I said I had seen it as a child in Rhode Island and she doubted it. I did see it and my mother explained it to us. Can I get some kind of proof that in those days, maybe because there wasn't much light where I lived or the pollution was non-existent, that I did witness these northern lights. Thank you.

Sara: There is an index number, known as Kp, which tells how heavy the geomagnetic action has to be to see aurorae at a given magnetic latitude. Kp on a typical day is about 4. In Rhode Island, you'd need a Kp of about 8 (with good viewing conditions). Ordinarily, this makes it unlikely to see aurorae in Rhode Island.

on the night of Jan 25, 1938 there was a low-altitude red aurora. This type of aurora happens only in intense geomagnetic storms. The sky over North America was so bright that in many cities fire trucks were sent out to look for the flames! If it was on this night, I'm willing to bet that you did witness an aurora, and a great historical one at that!

In an all-red aurorae, low-energy electrons strike the upper atmosphere. The red light is emission from atomic oxygen. The electrons do not have energy enough to penetrate to lower altitudes, where they would cause emission of the green light that is also seen in aurorae that are red on top and green at the bottom.

Similar question: I am curious as to whether I saw the northern lights as a child in the 1950's. I could swear I did from the front door of the house which I believed faced north. Many beautiful lights. It was probably somewhere between 1952-1959. I lived near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Could you tell me if this was possible? I don't think I dreamed such a thing. My older sister and I were talking about it tonight but she does not remember. Thank You.

Karen: It is sometimes possible to see Aurora from as far south as Florida! It all depends on how active the Sun is and how the Earth's magnetic field is lined up. There is a site which does Aurora forcasting and they have a FAQ on where it is possible to see the Aurora. This has a nice diagram showing what percentage of the time it is possible to see Aurora from different locations. You can see the Pennsylvania falls into the 1-5% zone, meaning that on average 1-5% of the time Aurora can be seen. So while it's not very common to see Aurora from the location you mention, it is not impossible either.

If you read further down the page it also turns out that you might be remembering the 1958 auroras, which were unusally active and (according to that site) are a source of childhood memories of many adults. They also mention the similar episode of high activity in 1938 which Sara mentioned above.

This page was last updated on June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Sara Slater

Sara is a former Cornell undergraduate and now a physics graduate student at Harvard University, where she works on cosmology and particle physics.

Celestial Observation

Stars appear as points of light in the sky. They are like our Sun and can vary in size and heat. Although they are bright they are millions of miles away, the nearest is 4 light years away. They may twinkle towards the horizon. Many stars are binary stars and consist of two or more stars that share a gravitational bond. These are called double stars although this name also applies to stars that look binary because of the angle we see them but are not connected.

Many of the stars in the sky are binary stars. This means they are actually two stars that orbit around a common centre of orbit. Some stars like Castor in the constellation Gemini have more than one binary pair. There are six stars made up of three sets of binaries orbiting each other.

Some stars look close to one another in the sky but are not related they can be millions of kilometres, even light years apart. A further star may be brighter than the closer star but much further away. These are called optical double stars.


Planets are typically brighter than stars, they do not tend to oscillate (twinkle) due to being closer than stars. Mercury is difficult to view due to being closer to the Sun, only visible pre-sunrise and post-sunset. Venus is visible in the early morning and evening. Venus, Mars (bright and somewhat red) and Jupiter are brighter than any star. Saturn is slightly less bright than the star Sirius but from northern latitudes it appears brighter as it is higher in the sky.

Constellations & Asterisms

A constellation is a group of stars that appear to make a pattern in the sky. When we look at them they look close together, but in reality they are usually very far apart and may not be part of the same group of stars they appear next to. At different times of the year we can see different constellations due to the rotation of the Earth and the tilt of our axis, in the same way we have seasons. As our planet rotates we appear to stay still while the sky rotates.

An asterism is a pattern of stars that may or may not be linked to a constellation. Examples are the Plough in Ursa Major, the pattern made by the saucepan shaped brighter stars, or the Summer Triangle, a shape formed between the bright stars Vega (constellation of Lyre), Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila.

Clusters: Open & Globular

There are clusters of stars around the galaxy. These have sometimes been mistaken for galaxies but we know they are not as there are usually only several thousand stars quite close to our galaxy, if not in it.

If they actually were galaxies there would be millions of stars there and they would be much further away. In fact we can see clusters of stars in other galaxies.

There are two types you should know about:
- Open clusters
- Globular clusters

Open clusters are groups of stars close to each other in space. They form no specific symmetry and are usually very bright, indicating that they are young stars.

There can be anywhere from a dozen to thousands of stars making up no particular shape, and these are found around the galactic plane.

A good example of an open cluster is the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, above the constellation Taurus. You can compare your eyesight to a friend by seeing how many you can spot with your eyes. From a city you may see seven, the record is nineteen!

Globular clusters are spherical shaped with more stars nearer the nucleus. They resemble a fuzzy ball.

These clusters are located around the galactic nucleus.

The stars are usually very old red giants and white dwarfs packed tightly together. There are thought to be between 100,000 to over a million stars in a typical globular cluster.

An example of a globular cluster is M13 in Hercules.


Comets have vast trails of ice and dust over a large portion of the sky, thinning to a dense core. It's movement over a short period of time is clearly noticeable. Most comets are visible to the naked eye.


Meteors are short lived but very bright streaks of light that move across the sky in a matter of seconds.


Nebulae (the plural of Nebula) are blurry patches of light in space that are not other galaxies but are in fact mostly in our own galaxy.

They are places where stars are born, are dying or have died.


Very few Supernovae events happen that are visible to the naked eye, only a handful have been recorded in the last millennia. The supernovae that occurred in 1054 (now the Crab Pulsar/Nebula) was visible in the night sky for nearly two years and was visible in the daytime sky for over 20 days.


The solar wind interacts with the atmosphere to create spectacular displays of light and colour in the sky. In the northern hemisphere this is called Aurorae Borealis. In the southern hemisphere this is Aurora Australis.

Artificial Satellites

Slow moving, very faint objects, orbiting in a polar orbit and viewable on the meridian.

The ISS (International Space Station) moves over the course of the sky over a matter of minutes. It can be brighter than the planets and is unmistakable in the sky.


Multiple bright white and red lights slowly moving over the sky. You've seen a plane at night time.

Milky Way

With the naked eye this appears as a faint grey band in the sky. Through binoculars or a small telescope individual stars can be seen.

Aboriginal astronomy can teach us about the link between sky and land

R ecently, astronomers have been calling for a “dark sky reserve” in Central Australia – minimising artificial light to make it a reclaimed area for astronomical observing. There are already 12 international dark sky reserve sites around the world, but it would be the first of its kind in Australia.

If you’ve had any form of state education in Australia, I’m sure you must have heard an Indigenous dreamtime story at least once in your life. Maybe it was Tiddalick the Frog, or maybe even the Rainbow Serpent. These stories you may have heard as a child hold a wealth of astronomical knowledge – and there’s more where that came from.

First Nations peoples of Australia have been studying the sky for tens of thousands of years. They are the first astronomers of Australia. Their science may seem subtle at first, but once you open your eyes to this alternative perspective of space and the cosmos, you will find concepts of astronomical phenomena within these star stories.

My relationship with Aboriginal astronomy started in my first year of tertiary education, around the same time I started working at Sydney Observatory. I learned about great celestial bodies in the sky and found a new perspective for the sky and the cosmos. Since then, I’ve delved into learning more about Australia’s great astronomical history and joined a group of Aboriginal astronomy researchers.

So, let me share with you some of the interesting concepts found within Aboriginal astronomy that absolutely blew my mind on my journey into the realm of the Indigenous sky.

I want to start by discussing the comparison of perspectives of the sky. In Western astronomy the sky seems very abstract, cluttered with constellations or dot-to-dot shapes and objects. Constellations that come to mind are the Southern Cross or the zodiac constellations, also known as the star signs, among many more. When looking at these constellations you can easily see that some make sense, others . not so much. A lot of imagination is needed in some cases! Take this constellation here.

Canis Major Photograph: Stellarium

It’s quite obviously a dog – it is called the big dog. This one on the other hand is not so obvious.

Canis Minor Photograph: Stellarium

But, believe it or not, it is also a dog – little Canis Minor. Clearly!

Constellations in Aboriginal astronomy are a little more subtle than western constellations like Canis Minor. In general, a single celestial body like a star or a planet will represent a single entity or a single thing, like an animal or a person. Although, sometimes there are greater astronomical bodies that construct images in the sky. My favourite Aboriginal constellation would have to be, hands down, the Great Celestial Emu. This constellation is very different to all of the constellations mentioned so far. Instead of being forged with the bright spots in the sky, the dark clouds of our Milky Way galaxy manifest a huge emu in the sky.

Emu Photograph: Stellarium

In my country, Wiradjuri (now known as central NSW), as well as many other Indigenous nations, the emu’s position in the sky signals at what point during the year is best for emu egg collection. When the emu, known as Gugurmin in Wiradjuri language, is on the eastern horizon just after sunset, this indicates that the emus are currently nesting. So, at this time there are no emu eggs to collect. Later in the year, Gugurmin makes its way up higher into the sky. Once its body is directly overhead after sunset, it’s time to go collect emu eggs.

Not only does the sky act as a seasonal menu, it is also used as a tool for teaching many lessons. These lessons could be about Aboriginal law, or they could be about how the universe functions on a fundamental level. One of my favourite star stories is one that hints to multiple astronomical phenomena. This story comes from the Boorong people of the Wergaia language group, an Indigenous region in north-west Victoria. It speaks of a star called Unurgunite, an old spirit with two wives that are represented by the two bright stars either side of him.

Unurgunite Photograph: Stellarium

The moon, known as Mityan, fell in love with one of the wives and tried to lure her away. Unurgunite found out about this and had a great battle with Mityan. Mityan lost the battle and was left to wander the heavens forever more, the battle scars still strewn on his face.

My research in Aboriginal astronomy involves reading stories such as this one, and unveiling astronomical concepts hidden within them. While it may not be so obvious to begin with, this story has two astronomical phenomena layered within. The most obvious one is the battle scars on the face of the moon. This immediately refers to the dark patches on the moon known as mare or the seas.

The second, not so obvious phenomenon is occultation. Occultation is an astronomical phenomenon where one object passes in front of a second object, thus blocking the light from the second object. In this story, it speaks of the moon falling in love with one of the wives and luring her away. After a bit of research, it was found that the moon and one of the stars that represent the wives actually go through an occultation. I see this as the act of “luring her away” in the story.


The ultimate energy source of the aurora is the solar wind flowing past the Earth. The magnetosphere and solar wind consist of plasma (ionized gas), which conducts electricity. It is well known (since Michael Faraday's [1791 – 1867] work around 1830) that when an electrical conductor is placed within a magnetic field while relative motion occurs in a direction that the conductor cuts across (or is cut by), rather than along, the lines of the magnetic field, an electric current is said to be induced into that conductor and electrons will flow within it. The amount of current flow is dependent upon a) the rate of relative motion, b) the strength of the magnetic field, c) the number of conductors ganged together and d) the distance between the conductor and the magnetic field, while the direction of flow is dependent upon the direction of relative motion. Dynamos make use of this basic process ("the dynamo effect"), any and all conductors, solid or otherwise are so affected including plasmas or other fluids.

In particular the solar wind and the magnetosphere are two electrically conducting fluids with such relative motion and should be able (in principle) to generate electric currents by "dynamo action", in the process also extracting energy from the flow of the solar wind. The process is hampered by the fact that plasmas conduct easily along magnetic field lines, but not so easily perpendicular to them. So it is important that a temporary magnetic connection be established between the field lines of the solar wind and those of the magnetosphere, by a process known as magnetic reconnection. It happens most easily with a southward slant of interplanetary field lines, because then field lines north of Earth approximately match the direction of field lines near the north magnetic pole (namely, into Earth), and similarly near the south magnetic pole. Indeed, active auroras (and related "substorms") are much more likely at such times. Electric currents originating in such way apparently give auroral electrons their energy. The magnetospheric plasma has an abundance of electrons: some are magnetically trapped, some reside in the magnetotail, and some exist in the upward extension of the ionosphere, which may extend (with diminishing density) some 25,000 km around Earth.

Bright auroras are generally associated with Birkeland currents (Schield et al., 1969 [ 30 ] Zmuda and Armstrong, 1973 [ 31 ] ) which flow down into the ionosphere on one side of the pole and out on the other. In between, some of the current connects directly through the ionospheric E layer (125 km) the rest ("region 2") detours, leaving again through field lines closer to the equator and closing through the "partial ring current" carried by magnetically trapped plasma. The ionosphere is an ohmic conductor, so such currents require a driving voltage, which some dynamo mechanism can supply. Electric field probes in orbit above the polar cap suggest voltages of the order of 40,000 volts, rising up to more than 200,000 volts during intense magnetic storms.

Ionospheric resistance has a complex nature, and leads to a secondary Hall current flow. By a strange twist of physics, the magnetic disturbance on the ground due to the main current almost cancels out, so most of the observed effect of auroras is due to a secondary current, the auroral electrojet. An auroral electrojet index (measured in nanotesla) is regularly derived from ground data and serves as a general measure of auroral activity.

Ohmic resistance is not the only obstacle to current flow in this circuit, however, the convergence of magnetic field lines near Earth creates a "mirror effect" that turns back most of the down-flowing electrons (where currents flow upward), inhibiting current-carrying capacity. To overcome this, part of the available voltage appears along the field line ("parallel to the field"), helping electrons overcome that obstacle by widening the bundle of trajectories reaching Earth a similar "parallel potential" is used in "tandem mirror" plasma containment devices. A feature of such voltage is that it is concentrated near Earth (potential proportional to field intensity Persson, 1963 [ 32 ] ), and indeed, as deduced by Evans (1974) and confirmed by satellites, most auroral acceleration occurs below 10,000 km. Another indicator of parallel electric fields along field lines are beams of upward flowing O+ ions observed on auroral field lines.

Some O+ ions ("conics") also seem accelerated in different ways by plasma processes associated with the aurora. These ions are accelerated by plasma waves, in directions mainly perpendicular to the field lines. They therefore start at their own "mirror points" and can travel only upward. As they do so, the "mirror effect" transforms their directions of motion, from perpendicular to the line to lying on a cone around it, which gradually narrows down.

In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation (AKR, discovered in 1972). Ionospheric absorption makes AKR observable from space only.

These "parallel potentials" accelerate electrons to auroral energies and seem to be a major source of aurora. Other mechanisms have also been proposed, in particular, Alfvén waves, wave modes involving the magnetic field first noted by Hannes Alfvén (1942), which have been observed in the lab and in space. The question is whether these waves might just be a different way of looking at the above process, however, because this approach does not point out a different energy source, and many plasma bulk phenomena can also be described in terms of Alfvén waves.

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Other processes are also involved in the aurora, and much remains to be learned. Auroral electrons created by large geomagnetic storms often seem to have energies below 1 keV, and are stopped higher up, near 200 km. Such low energies excite mainly the red line of oxygen, so that often such auroras are red. On the other hand, positive ions also reach the ionosphere at such time, with energies of 20–30 keV, suggesting they might be an "overflow" along magnetic field lines of the copious "ring current" ions accelerated at such times, by processes different from the ones described above.

What&aposs The Difference Between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights?

First of all let’s get straight to the point. Other than geographical location, there really is no difference between the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights. They both take place over the polar regions and are basically the same phenomenon. Although if you see either of the displays you are witnessing the same thing, there are reasons why the Northern Lights tends to be a lot more popular and far easier to see.

That Being said, Nikolai Østgaard and Karl Magnus Laundal, both of the University of Bergen in Norway, reported in the journal Nature that “. we report observations that clearly contradict the common assumption about symmetric aurora: intense spots are seen at dawn in the Northern summer Hemisphere, and at dusk in the Southern winter Hemisphere,” they write. “The asymmetry is interpreted in terms of inter-hemispheric currents related to seasons, which have been predicted but hitherto had not been seen.” Their report was based on observations from new global imaging cameras at each pole. The authors suggest that this asymmetry confirms the existence of inter-hemispheric field-aligned currents related to the seasons. This had been predicted by a few scientists, but it had never before been observed. Nevertheless, this is not something that&aposs going to be noticeable to you or me, and both Auroras are caused by the same natural phenomenon.

Around the Northern Arctic, Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and a few other places stretch high into the Arctic Circle, where the Aurora is most active. Due to this fact, there are lots of places you can go to view the lights. There are a lot of settlements located far enough North that people can go to see the Aurora Borealis on quite a regular basis. However, in the Southern Hemisphere it is a very different story. The Antarctic is surrounded by open water, there are very few land masses and even fewer populated areas. This makes catching a glimpse of the Aurora Australis far more difficult.

When you look online you can find lots of articles and pictures of the Northern Lights, whereas the Southern Lights tend to get far less press coverage. Your best bet for viewing the Aurora in the South is to hop on a cruise ship and head down as far as they will take you. That said, you can view the lights from places such as New Zealand, Argentina, and The Falklands. But more often than not, if people want to view the Aurora, they tend to head North.

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