How to make Northern Lights

1. Get some Supersonic Solar Wind

In 1962 it was proved that empty space is awash with constant solar wind, blowing at 300 – 800 km per second.

From the Sun’s equator a constant stream of particles evaporates into space. Occasionally, violent gusts break free of the Sun’s gravitational and magnetic forces. These are flares and coronal mass ejections.

How does solar wind affect the other planets?

These electrically charged hurricanes are ferocious and relentless, and the planets line in their firing line. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, bears the full brunt of the solar wind. Any atmosphere that this moon-like world may once have had has long been blown away, leaving its surface bathed in deadly radiation.

Mars is larger than Mercury and 4 times further from the sun. And yet even here it is thought that the solar wind has stripped away up to a third of its original atmosphere, leaving a veil one hundred times thinner than our own.

Venus, our nearest neighbor, has an atmosphere one hundred times thicker than ours. Modern space probes discovered a comet-like tail that stretches back to the orbit of the Earth. The clouds on Venus are also being eroded by the solar wind.

The Earth’s Moon has no atmosphere or intrinsic magnetic field, and consequently its surface is bombarded with the full solar wind.

2. Get a very good Magnetic Field

What about our own atmosphere? Alone among the inner worlds, the Earth has a magnetic field that stretches far out into space. This field deflects the solar wind and protects our atmosphere from erosion. It’s a force field fighting a constant battle with the sun.

Magnetic Field vs. Solar Wind – The Battle

The solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field are steadily battling against each other. The magnetic field is being compressed by the solar wind. As this pressure increases and sends the particles along the magnetic fields and down to the polar areas of the Earth, then we see the northern lights or aurora, in the upper atmosphere.

3. Get Solar Plasma – Ask SOHO for that…

The light radiates outward from the chore of the Sun. In the outer layers, the heat moves to the surface in huge eddies called ‘convection cells’. These electrical currents of charged gas create magnetic fields inside the Sun. In some places strong magnetic fields push their way through the surface. They slow down the eddies of hot gas. The surface cools and darker sunspots appear. The electrically charged gas is called ‘plasma’.

The very stuff of life is built inside the Sun. The chore of a star is the ultimate fusion reactor. By complex nuclear reactions it changes material, it produces new particles that leave the sun.

The Solar Observatory SOHO can view the Sun in X-rays, ultraviolet and visible light. But SOHO doesn’t just look. It listens!

The Sun’s surface ripples like a pond. It’s heaving. Every 6 minutes the entire star “breathes” in and out. Its gaseous ocean swells and dips, and a complex pattern of ripples shimmer across its surface, giving clues to the structure within. You can’t see inside the sun because it’s opaque. But you can hear inside the sun and learn its structure. It’s just like the tones of a musical instrument.

SOHO has already started to strip away the outer layers of the Sun. Beneath its surface it has discovered rivers of plasma, super heated gases that circle its poles.

Looking like the jet stream on Earth, it seems the Sun has weather too. But deep in the chore is that remarkable chemical factory. It generates stuff, all the matter that you and I are made of, from hydrogen and helium.

Do animals watch the northern lights?

Regrettably not. Well, we all knew of course that cows and horses are not interested in sunsets and other celestial phenomena. But that could be explained because a sunset is not a very active event.

The writer of these lines used to have a very beautiful and intelligent lady cat (smile) and decided to make a little experiment one night that there was a galvanizing display of northern lights. It was a really fast-paced and bright display. And cats can see very well in the dark, can’t they? So I made my cat look up toward the sky. Since felines are attracted to anything that moves fast, I thought that maybe she’d be captivated by this activity in the sky. But no… Zero interest, no matter what…

Does it follow, I wonder, that the more mesmerized we feel about auroras and sunsets and stars, that we’re therefore very human? And if we don’t get impressed by these marvels… are we therefore more “animal”? I wonder just how old a child we were, when we first begun to feel touched by beauty? Well, that’s just some thoughts!

The Experience

Some folks have said that they can hardly muster words sufficient to convey how profound an experience it was to watch a display of northern lights. A man said:

“I felt as though an angel – no hominine entity but the manifestation of a phenomenal universal force – was descending to Earth, its wings unfurling slowly, powerfully, ever so powerfully with grace, with ease but with unfathomable energy capable of creation, capable of destruction.

And slowly, powerfully, it waved its wings above us and then it began to dance. The awe lingers in me still.”