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The Aurora or Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are an amazing phenomenon that can range from a mild dim light show to a spectacular display lighting up the night sky. The following is the basic idea of how the aurora is caused, but naturally the story is more complicated than can be described in the space available.

The aurora is caused by a flow of charged particles from the Sun’s surface associated with the Solar Wind and often boosted by a sunspot storm or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).

These charged particles travel across space until they reach the Earth. Here they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field & become funnelled down the north & south polar regions along the magnetic field lines causing the atmospheric gasses to glow with the excess energy. It is this glow which we see as the aurora and generally speaking the main auroral emission is at about 50 to 100 miles above us in the more rarified parts of the atmosphere.

If the solar wind is particularly strong or an eruption on the Sun is especially violent then we may get a more powerful display of the aurora, however, it all depends on whether the eruption is pointing in the general direction of the Earth or not. Thus predicting displays is notoriously difficult. Light pollution limits what you can see so look for a dark site to observe from if at all possible. Of course there is also the strong possibility that the sky will be clouded over!

We've come out of Solar Maximum which was thought to come to a peak during 2013 and are close to Solar Minimum but experience has shown that the Sun can surprise us at anytime.

There are lots of overseas trips that can be booked so check out www.spaceweather.com for more details. There are also flights (image above taken by the author in 2011) from various UK International airports via Omega Holidays so check out the Astrospace web site: www.astrospace.co.uk/NL-flights.html for more details and links.