The sun has been playing an absolutely wild role lately, and one of the results of its continued activity is spectacular aurora activity.
The last few days of February were marked by streaks of green light moving across the high-latitude skies. But we weren’t the only ones enjoying these stunning light shows on the planet’s surface.
Hundreds of kilometers above our planet, astronauts also enjoyed the rare sight of the Aurora Borealis from a unique perspective.
Images aboard the International Space Station by astronauts Josh Cassada of NASA and Koichi Wasada of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency show the auroras shimmering green against the natural golden glow of Earth’s sky at night.
Absolutely unreal. pic.twitter.com/pah5PSC0bl
— Josh Cassada (@astro_josh) February 28, 2023
Earth’s sky is never completely dark, even at night, even after you’ve extracted all contributions from light pollution, starlight, and diffuse sunlight.
At night, this soft glow is known as the nightglow, and it occurs when molecules that were broken apart by sunlight during the day reconnect and release their excess energy in the form of photons. Nightglow is there all the time.
Spectacular views of aurora, city lights, moon, sunrise and ISS solar panels over Canada in one image! pic.twitter.com/wyNHNDDc00
— 若田光一 WAKATA Koichi (@Astro_Wakata) February 28, 2023
Aurora, on the other hand, is more situational. It occurs when particles from the solar wind smash into Earth’s magnetic field and are flung away, accelerating along magnetic field lines, to high latitudes near the north or south poles, where they rain down into the upper atmosphere. There they interact with atmospheric particles; These interactions create the dancing green lights that shimmer across the sky.
The sun always emits gusts of charged particles; However, it is only during particularly strong winds after a solar flare that there are enough interactions to produce visible light shows, sometimes down to mid-latitudes.
As the Sun has been particularly active over the past year or two, it has thrown out a large number of powerful flares as it nears the peak of its normal 11-year cycle of activity.
February was an exciting month with several powerful M and X class flares – the strongest categories of flares emitted by our sun.
Although the current cycle is significantly stronger than official predictions, the Sun’s activity is still within a relatively normal range, so its behavior is not particularly worrying. A particularly powerful flare can trigger a geomagnetic storm that can disrupt satellite and radio communications and damage power grids. Nothing of the sort seems to be in the immediate vicinity.
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However, it looks like we could be heading for an absolutely super strong Aurora season. Avid aurora followers can keep up to date with forecasts from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s aurora forecast for the southern hemisphere.