There was a big solar flare on Monday, which as often happens created a flash of X-rays (travel time to Earth 8.5 minutes), a blast of high speed protons and electrons (travel time minutes to hours), and a “Coronal Mass Ejection” (CME) of slower subatomic particles (travel time 1 to 3 days.) It’s the CME that is one of the main triggers for auroras borealis (north) and australis (south).
Update 23:00 Eastern Time (0300 UT): the CME has arrived in the past hour. There are northern lights going on, but so far they are still quite far north compared to predictions. This could change, but it will soon be too late for me to report on it, and it’s pretty cloudy here so I’m unlikely to stay up late hoping. Checking “northern lights” or “aurora” on Twitter is a good way to get real-time information, and there are some webcams on https://aurora.live/camera/ .
Aurora forecasts are not very reliable yet, because of a lack of data about the CMEs themselves and the ever-changing environment between the Sun and the Earth through which they are moving. So neither timing of arrival nor strength of impact can be predicted with great confidence. With that caveat, it seems likely that the flare will arrive late tonight or early in the morning in Europe, late afternoon to evening in the United States. Its effects could be as strong as any we’ve seen in a number of years; auroras may well be visible well into central Europe and the northern third of the United States, or even further south than that, on and off over a period of many hours. Fingers crossed.
We will have mostly cloudy skies here, so I probably won’t see this one. But I hope many of you are lucky enough to see a spectacle tonight!
Update: Also today, an even stronger flare occurred. If this one also created a CME that’s aimed toward Earth, we may have another round of strong auroras within a couple of days. See the data below showing X-rays detected from today’s flare, and from Monday’s earlier flare.
Oh, and by the way, sometime soon I’ll show you how to use solar flares and CMEs to solve one of the hardest problems in do-it-yourself astronomy. If only the Greeks had known!