Northern Lights over Northern Illinois

Northern Lights over Northern Illinois

By Rod Myers

By Rod Myers

When I returned home from the neighbors on Monday night, Nov. 5, a message was waiting on my phone answering machine. “Hello, Rod. The Northern Lights are displaying tonight.” I raced outside to witness a very impressive sky show. The Northern Lights covered at least a third of the night sky. The lights were white, pale yellow, red and purplish-red.

Scientifically, the Northern Lights are known as auroras. They emanate from the atmosphere above both the North and South poles. The Northern auroras are called Aurora Borealis. The Southern Auroras are Aurora Australis. Scientists know what auroras are and what causes them right down to a quantum tweak. On Sunday, Nov. 4, a Class X coronal mass ejection occurred on our sun. By the way, Class X means very intense, and “coronal” comes from the word “corona”, which is the upper atmosphere of the sun. The corona is hot, and for this reason, is unable to hold all its matter; thus, a constant stream of atomic particles, mostly protons and electrons, blow out toward the planets and stars in varying degrees. Their speeds range from 300 to 1,000 km per second. This particle breeze is called the solar wind, which constantly bathes the earth and would be harmful without the protection of earth’s magnetic field.

A large coronal mass ejection occurs when a large eruption, solar flare, rises from the sun’s surface into the corona in just a matter of minutes. This phenomenon emits X-rays, ultraviolet, visible radiation and huge numbers of high-energy protons and electrons, which escape the corona as a high-dose solar wind. One solar flare can produce the energy equivalent of 10 billion mega-tons of TNT.

The solar flare is caused when arced magnetic fields interact. Magnetic fields can store vast amounts of energy, and when the sun’s fields suddenly interact, gas trapped between them is heated to over 5,000,000 Kelvin. This sends the superheated gas to the corona and beyond.

As you probably know, the hotter atoms become, the faster they move and collide with each other, especially if trapped. Superheated gas atoms collide at incredible rates and speeds literally ripping subatomic particles from each other like protons and electrons, which causes a free flow of them.

The X-rays, ultraviolet and visible radiation emitted by the Nov. 4 Class X coronal mass

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ejection reached earth in about 8 minutes. The glutted proton electron Class X CME solar wind reached earth’s atmosphere in 40 hours and was channeled to the poles by earth’s magnetic field. Then the color began as the souped-up solar wind collided with earth’s atmosphere. The colors are produced when a solar particle hits an electron of an atom.

The particle knocks an electron up an energy rung on the atom’s quantum ladder. Each electron that’s bumped to a higher energy level emits a photon of light. The color of the photon depends on the element being hit. For example, oxygen gives off green, freon gives off red, and so on.

Well, that’s the science of it. Of course, some people think auroras are reflections off polar ice. Guess we’ll see who’s right when global warming melts the polar ice caps! Oh, you don’t believe in global warming. Well, let me throw some science at you and bump you up a rung.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in nature and the environment. He is a member of the Rockford Amateur Astronomers Club, the Sinnissippi Audubon Society, Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and the Planetary Society.

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