The Sun is busy this summer. The upcoming eclipse on August 21 will turn day into deep twilight and transfix millions across the United States. But before we get there, we may, if we’re lucky, see darkness transformed into color and light.
On Friday July 14th, a giant sunspot in our Sun’s upper regions, easily visible if you project the Sun’s image onto a wall, generated a powerful flare. A solar flare is a sort of magnetically powered explosion; it produces powerful electromagnetic waves and often, as in this case, blows a large quantity of subatomic particles from the Sun’s corona. The latter is called a “coronal mass ejection.” It appears that the cloud of particles from Friday’s flare is large, and headed more or less straight for the Earth.
Light, visible and otherwise, is an electromagnetic wave, and so the electromagnetic waves generated in the flare — mostly ultraviolet light and X-rays — travel through space at the speed of light, arriving at the Earth in eight and a half minutes. They cause effects in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that can disrupt radio communications, or worse. That’s another story.
But the cloud of subatomic particles from the coronal mass ejection travels a few hundred times slower than light, and it takes it about two or three days to reach the Earth. The wait is on.
Bottom line: a huge number of high-energy subatomic particles may arrive in the next 24 to 48 hours. If and when they do, the electrically charged particles among them will be trapped in, and shepherded by, the Earth’s magnetic field, which will drive them spiraling into the atmosphere close to the Earth’s polar regions. And when they hit the atmosphere, they’ll strike atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, which in turn will glow. Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights.
So if you live in the upper northern hemisphere, including Europe, Canada and much of the United States, keep your eyes turned to the north (and to the south if you’re in Australia or southern South America) over the next couple of nights. Dark skies may be crucial; the glow may be very faint.
You can also keep abreast of the situation, as I will, using NOAA data, available for instance at
The plot on the upper left of that website, an example of which is reproduced below, shows three types of data. The top graph shows the amount of X-rays impacting the atmosphere; the big jump on the 14th is Friday’s flare. And if and when the Earth’s magnetic field goes nuts and auroras begin, the bottom plot will show the so-called “Kp Index” climbing to 5, 6, or hopefully 7 or 8. When the index gets that high, there’s a much greater chance of seeing auroras much further away from the poles than usual.
Keep an eye also on the data from the ACE satellite, lower down on the website; it’s placed to give Earth an early warning, so when its data gets busy, you’ll know the cloud of particles is not far away.
Wishing you all a great sky show!