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Aurora Borealis

Most nights the sky only looks one way: a black blanket studded with stars. Occasionally, we cannot even see the stars due to clouds that block them. But for some very lucky regions, the sky turns into a bursting display of breathtaking colors once the Sun goes down. Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights, are colorful lights that flash across the night sky at the Earth’s poles.

An image showing the Aurora Borealis over trees.

Inuit tribes often believed that the northern lights were their ancestors celebrating.

Why Does the Aurora Borealis Only Occur at Earth’s Poles?

Here’s a helpful image that might help you understand what causes Northern Lights: When you’ve had a carbonated drink, like Root Beer, what do you notice happens afterward? You burp! That’s because of the gas in the drink.
 
Gases make up the Sun, so it lets out a continuous belch that throws bursts of energy away from its surface. This is a coronal mass ejection (CME) or solar wind, and most of the time Earth is on its path. 
 
If you did not know already, Earth’s poles are magnetic. Because of this, when the Sun hurls a burning mass of hot gas at the earth, it’s directed to one of the poles.
 

The radiation from the CME excites atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. The excited atoms experience a huge increase in energy. When the atoms return back to normal energy levels, they release particles of light called photons. Because of this, the dangerous radiation of the Sun gets turned into something beautiful. You can thank Earth’s protective magnetic field for that!

An illustration of solar wind and coronal ejections leaving the sun and heading toward Earth.

Yikes! Please don’t hit us!

Where Does the Name ‘Aurora Borealis’ Come From?

The name Aurora means “dawn” in Latin. Aurora was the Roman Goddess of dawn. Borealis comes from the Greek name Boreas. Boreas is what the Greeks called the North Wind. 
 

Did You Know?

Oxygen molecules found in the Earth’s atmosphere make green or brownish aurorae, whereas nitrogen molecules make blue or red aurorae.
 
Also, aurorae are brightest when the Solar Cycle is at its maximum, which means when the Sun has the most Sun Spots.

Other Great Resources:

What are the Northern Lights?https://www.highlightskids.com/explore/science-questions/what-are-the-northern-lights

(Video) Understanding Aurorae: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=B7wQxvj_Kss

Aurora Facts by Kiddle: https://kids.kiddle.co/Aurora

 

Written By: Anna Hylen