Amazing Planet

Thank The Sun For The Northern Lights

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Few things you can witness will blow your mind quite like the Aurora Borealis. A vivid array of colors light up the night sky. While the Northern Lights get all the publicity, the southern hemisphere gets the same kind of light show. They're called the Aurora Australis. What exactly is going on to cause these displays?

From the Sun to the Sky

The sun's corona is a layer of its atmosphere that's visible from Earth during an eclipse. The temperature in the corona is around 2 million degrees Celsius (3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot enough to melt your body in an instant, but it's nothing compared to the sun's core, where temperatures pass 15 million degrees C (27 million degrees F).

When particles enter the corona from the core through the sun's atmospheric layers, they can have extreme reactions during temperature fluctuation, which causes the corona to lose energy and radiation. It goes all over the place, but the rotation of the sun actually sends some of those released particles toward earth. This "solar wind" enters our atmosphere. When the solar wind hits the atoms in the atmosphere, electrons move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons fall back to a lower-energy state, they release photons that make light. That creates the Aurora Borealis and Australis.

When the solar wind collides with oxygen, it produces red and green auroras. Collisions with nitrogen create blue or red lights.

The Best Place to See It

The Northern Lights are on plenty of bucket lists, and seeing it firsthand is actually pretty easy. Plus, you don't even have to leave the U.S. Head up to Alaska's Denali National Park for the very best views, particularly during the fall. If you want to stay closer to civilization, you can see them from Fairbanks, Alaska. If you want to stay in the lower 48, you can hit up the Idaho Panhandle National Forest; the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Maine; Cook County of northeastern Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior (which reflects the lights); or the winter wonderland of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Internationally, the best views are from Denmark, Scotland, Greenland, and, of course, Canada.

For the best views of the Southern Lights, don't expect better weather, especially since you have to go during the Antarctic winter. Head to South Georgia Island; Stewart Island, New Zealand; The Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina; Ushuaia, Argentina; and, of course, Antarctica. By the way, the Antarctic winter is between March and September, and the darkest months (for the best views) are from April to August.

Oh, and no matter what Principal Skinner from "The Simpsons" tells you, the Aurora Borealis is not occurring in his kitchen.

Fantastic Aurora: Inside the Sun to Earth's Poles

Aurora Australis

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