June 20, 2024

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The colors of the northern lights explained

The colors of the northern lights explained

If you looked at social media feeds last week, they were likely full of dazzling images of the aurora borealis – the northern lights – in a range of colors beyond the usual green lights usually associated with the phenomenon.

Auroras occur when the Earth’s magnetic field is disrupted by intense solar winds that travel at 3 million miles per hour and carry plasma particles that interact with gases – namely oxygen and nitrogen – in the planet’s atmosphere.

But what provides the magic of these lights is what is happening at the molecular level in these gases.

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Why are there different colors of the northern lights?

The colors we see emanating from the aurora borealis are a direct result of activity occurring at the atomic level in the air molecules. When plasma particles from solar flares collide with molecules in the atmosphere, electrons jump due to their excited energy level. When the electrons return to their normal state, the excess energy is released from the atom in the form of a photon of light. The oxygen atoms emit a ghostly green color, the most common type of northern lights.

However, recent showings in areas as far south as Florida and Texas have featured red, blue and purple. These colors are caused by a mixture of nitrogen, hydrogen and helium present at different levels in the atmosphere where oxygen is thinner.

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Will we see the Northern Lights again?

Yes. According to forecasts by NASA scientists, the next peak in this type of solar activity that spews out large explosions of energy and matter – called solar maximum – will occur in July 2025. The northern lights are expected to become stronger and more frequent as the sun glows. Extreme approach.

for now, NASA scientists have more data to work with for study The effect of solar flares on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, satellites and infrastructure in space.

Contributing Doyle Rice and George Petras, USA TODAY

Sources: NASA, Aurora Watch UK/Lancaster UniversityReuters