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Away from the sun at extreme speeds

Away from the sun at extreme speeds

Auroras are light displays in the sky caused by sunspots that unleashed an eruption of highly charged particles, mainly protons and electrons, that traveled away from the sun at extreme speeds. In fact, it only takes about three days for these particles to reach the Earth.

The sky display also is called the northern or southern lights and is seen in far northern and southern hemisphere locations greater than 50 degrees of latitude. In the Northern Hemisphere, the lights are referred to as the aurora borealis, and in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the aurora australis.

However, during the dark hours on Aug. 12, 2000, when the Perseid meteor shower was at its peak, countless sky gazers throughout California reported seeing the northern lights. Not unexpectedly, many found it difficult to look away from the dazzling aurora borealis in the northern sky to watch for meteors streaking overhead.

This stream of protons and electrons is referred to as the solar winds or plasma. Unlike the winds on the Earth’s surface, the solar wind does not consist of any atoms or molecules. In other words, it’s not the air we breathe.

When fast-moving groups of energetic particles hit the planet’s magnetosphere, they accelerate along the magnetic field lines of the Earth in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where they collide with gas atoms and give off light. Much like a neon sign that is constructed with different gases in small circular tubes, the many colors of the aurora are caused by different gases in the atmosphere. These gases emit different colors of light when excited by high-energy particles contained in the solar winds from the sun. Molecules of oxygen usually emit green or red light, and molecular nitrogen can give off violet light.

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