The sun launching an explosion of electromagnetic energy toward Earth sounds ominous, but when it’s not too much, it makes for some pretty lights.
Our biggest star just blasted out massive Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), sending coronal matter across the solar system. Some of the electromagnetic energy is reaching our atmosphere, and some Americans will be able to see colorful shimmering skies known as the Northern Lights.
“Because of the strength of the storm, the northern lights might be visible to many who usually don’t get to see them. NOAA’s Geomagnetic Storm Index, which indicates the magnitude of the solar activity, is predicting a Kp Index of 7 (out of 9), which corresponds to aurora activity as far south as Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Seattle,” CNN reported.
The Northern Lights Centre explains exactly what the lights are.
“The Northern Lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora,” the center said.
Normally, the only U.S. spot to see the lights is Alaska. And across the world, the best spots are the northwestern parts of Canada, particularly the Yukon, the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland, the northern coast of Norway and over the coastal waters north of Siberia. They can also be seen far south Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean.
The celestial event isn’t the only one this month. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in the solar system, will soon line up and look like a double planet, a sight not seen since the Middle Ages.
The rare celestial event will occur after sunset on Dec. 21, 2020, the start of the winter solstice.
“Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another,” Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan said in a statement. “You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.”
Jupiter orbits the sun every 12 years, while Saturn’s orbit takes 30 years, and every couple of decades, Jupiter laps Saturn, according to NASA.
“On the evening of closest approach on Dec 21 they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full moon,” said Hartigan, a professor of physics and astronomy. “For most telescope viewers, each planet and several of their largest moons will be visible in the same field of view that evening.”
Hartigan said the best viewing conditions will be near the equator, but noted that the event will be observable anywhere on Earth. He also said the planetary duo will appear low in the western sky for about an hour after sunset each evening.
“The further north a viewer is, the less time they’ll have to catch a glimpse of the conjunction before the planets sink below the horizon,” he said, although he added that the planets will be bright enough to be seen in twilight, which may be the best time for many U.S. viewers to observe the alignment.