Three days ago, the Sun erupted a huge wave of charged particles known as coronal mass ejection (CME) into space. So, with blast of energy moving out into space, many are asking the question: what does this mean for us here on Earth? Answer: perhaps the Northern Lights.
The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged energy hits Earth, the particles react and the atoms/molecules in Earth's upper atmosphere give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual atom gives off a different glow when excited by the incoming solar wind.
For us living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Alaska, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and other such high-latitude places. For those at mid latitudes, such as the Northern continental United States, auroras don't find their way into these skies very often, but when they do, they are often dazzling.
My advice: while Cleveland-area aurora are rare, it never hurts to look.
Right now, the Sun is headed for solar maximum, the peak in activity in its 11-year cycle. Because blasts of energy from the Sun are sure to become more powerful and frequent in the future, the chances of aurora working their way down to the continental United States is sure to increase in the coming years. In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon from the Cleveland, Ohio area (41 degrees North).
As for the CME itself, impact in the form of a glancing blow is expected for tonight into tomorrow morning, which means that that this will be the night for high-latitude skywatchers to look for aurora.
Looking to do some sky watching in the Cleveland area? As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock if you plan to head out and look at the stars this coming week. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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Bodzash Photography & Astronomy