October 23, 2021

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Earth’s aurora origin mystery solved by ‘surfing’ electrons

2 min read

The aurora borealis found in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere have captivated humankind since the dawn of civilization. These natural light shows provide the closest opportunity we can get to experiencing space weather — conditions that are caused by activity on the sun’s surface and as such, they follow the solar cycle

Auroras are caused when electrons emitted from the sun as part of the ‘solar wind‘ hurtle towards Earth and are funneled down Earth’s magnetic field lines where they then collide with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the ionosphere — the upper atmosphere between 50 and 370 miles (80 and 600 kilometers). The absorption of energy by oxygen and nitrogen ions causes them to move to an ‘excited’ high-energy state. To relax, the molecules re-radiate the energy as light, which is presented as ribbons of greens and red hues in the sky — the aurora. 

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