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  • Falak Vadhan

Illuminating the Mesmerizing Phenomenon of the North

Northern lights, or auroras still represent a source of awe for millions of people. We have all heard about auroras and their beauty . But do you ever wonder about the actual science behind these enchanting dancing lights?

Every cloud has a silver lining. Similarly, in the case of space weather, this lining is the AURORA BOREALIS, or more specifically known as the Northern Lights. Named after the Roman Goddess of Dawn, the Aurora Borealis is a captivating display of flamboyant lights in the night sky. In an open patch of sky near the North Pole, you may catch a glimpse of the spectacle: curtains of yellow-green and pale blue, sometimes even red and purple - shimmering in the night sky.

The Sun continuously produces solar wind, made of charged particles. Earth has a tear-shaped magnetic field called the “Magnetosphere”, which continuously modifies according to the intensity of solar winds. As the solar particles enter Earth’s magnetosphere, they funnel and get accelerated towards the poles. Along the way, these particles collide with the gas molecules in Earth’s upper atmospheric layers - an interaction due to which the atoms with excessive energy are released as a burst of light, forming a marvelous aurora.

Interestingly,the colors that are released as a result of the collision depend on the gas molecules themselves! The most common auroral color, a bright yellow-green, is produced by the glow of oxygen molecules. Charged nitrogen molecules emit blue light when hit by solar particles while neutral nitrogen particles radiate a purplish-red light. Do you know the rarest auroral color ? Of course, it’s red.

Earth is not the only planet with auroras. As scientists are searching for other habitable planets, they look for auroras. If a distant, unknown planet has shimmering green auroras, it’s a strong indication that its atmosphere is rich in oxygen, perhaps enough to support life. Whether that life is capable of appreciating the auroras—well, that's another issue.

Auroras are a very unique phenomenon and are one of the best things to see in a lifetime. Truly, they are fascinating, magnificent gifts of nature.

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