Everything Worth Knowing About … Auroras

Everything Worth Knowing About … Auroras

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All the Highlights

30,000 B.C. Early Europeans may have carved images of auroras into rock art panels.

~A.D. 1000 The Sami, nomadic Scandinavian reindeer herders who live north of the Arctic Circle, believe auroras were spirits of the dead. The lights are still celebrated in a type of singing called the yoik.

1619 Galileo coins the term aurora borealis after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek “northern winds.”

1859 The Carrington Event’s intensity still frightens scientists today. Fortunately, ice core records show events like that rarely hit Earth.

1882-83 Danish astrophysicist Sophus Tromholt helps establish a northern lights observatory in Norway to determine aurora altitudes and shows that auroras are more likely to happen at the peak of the sun’s 11-year cycle of solar activity.

1892 German astronomer Martin Brendel takes the first aurora picture — a fuzzy image captured in northern Norway.

1909 Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian physicist, proves that the sun’s charged particles create auroras when they hit our magnetic field. He put a magnetized sphere — a lab “Earth” — in a box and pummeled it with electrons. The sphere glowed near its poles.

1910 Another Norwegian physicist, Carl Størmer, begins photographing auroras, often simultaneously imaging the same formations from different directions. Over the next four decades he’ll take 100,000 shots, mapping the shape of auroras and determining a typical altitude of 50 to 100 miles.

1958 America’s first satellite, Explorer I, discovers the Van Allen Belts, bands of charged particles surrounding Earth born from the solar wind.

1989 A solar eruption hits Earth on March 12, sending northern lights as far south as Cuba. A power failure affects Quebec for 12 hours.

2012 A coronal mass ejection on par with the Carrington Event blasts off the sun and narrowly misses Earth.

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