شَفَق قُطبی یکی از پدیدههای جوی کرهٔ زمین است. شفق قطبی پدیدهٔ ظهور نورهای رنگین و متحرک در آسمان شب است و معمولاً در عرضهای نزدیک به دو قطب زمین بر اثر برخورد ذرات باردارِ بادِ خورشیدی و یونیزه شدن مولکولهای موجود در یونسپهر (یونوسفر) زمین به وجود میآید.
شفقهای قطبی نورهای زیباییاند که بهطور طبیعی در آسمان دیده میشوند و معمولاً در شب و در عرضهای جغرافیایی قطبی به چشم میخورند. آنها در یونوسفر تشکیل میشوند و در سپیدهدم قطبی رویت پذیرند. در عرض جغرافیایی قطب شمال به آنها شفقهای شمالی نیز گفته میشود که این نام بر گرفته از نام ایزدگونه رومی سپیدهدم و نام یونانی باد شمالی است که در سال ۱۶۲۱ توسط پیر گاسندی روی این پدیده طبیعی نهاده شد. به شفقهای قطبی، نور قطب شمال هم گفته میشود زیرا آنها غالباً در نیم کرهٔ شمالی دیده میشوند و هرقدر به قطب شمال نزدیک میشوید با توجه به مجاورت با قطب مغناطیسی شمالی زمین احتمال بیشتری میرود که بتوانید آنها را ببینید. برای نمونه، در شهرهای شمالی کانادا که بسیار نزدیک به قطباند امکان رویت آنها بسیار زیاد است.
شفقهای قطبی در نزدیکی قطب مغناطیسی شمالی ممکن است خیلی بالا باشد ولی در افق شمالی به صورت سبز برافروخته و در صورت طلوع خورشید به صورت سرخ کمرنگ دیده میشود. شفقهای قطبی معمولاً از سپتامبر تا اکتبر و از مارس تا آوریل روی میدهند. برخی از قبایل کانادایی به این پدیده رقص ارواح میگویند. شفق قطبی در طول چرخه خورشیدی و هنگام خروج جرم از تاج خورشیدی پُردفعات و درخشندهتر مشاهده میشود.
در قطب جنوب نیز این روی میدهد اما تنها در جنوبیترین عرض جغرافیایی رویتشدنی است و گاهی نیز در آمریکای جنوبی و استرالیا (استرالیا در زبان لاتین به معنی جنوب است). بنجامین فرانکلین نخستین کسی بود که به شفقهای قطبی توجه نشان داد. در نظریه او علت وقوع شفقهای قطبی این انتقال نور در مرکز بار الکتریکی در سرزمینهای قطبی که با برف و رطوبت شدت میگیرد، بود. علت وقوع شفق قطبی خروج جرم از تاج خورشیدی است که از طریق مغناطره و کمربند وان آلن به مناطق قطبی هدایت میشوند.
بیرکلاند (B. Birkeland) دانشمند نروژی با مقایسه نتایج اخیر این فرضیه را مطرح کرد که لکههای خورشیدی ناحیههایی هستند که از آنها باریکههای ذرات باردار (الکترونها) به داخل فضای اطراف گسیل میشوند. این ذرات با رسیدن به لایههای بالای جو زمین ، از طریق برخوردهای الکترون در این لایهها ، مشابه تخلیه گاز در لوله ، گازها را به تابانی وا میدارند. این الکترونها همچنین روی میدان مغناطیسی زمین و شرایط انفجار امواج رادیویی مجاور زمین اثر میگذارند. او برای نشاندادن این پدیده، آزمایشی انجام داد. یک گوی مغناطیسی را که نماد زمین است، در یک جعبه شیشهای خلا آویزان کرد. سپس با یک تفنگ الکترونی، به آن الکترون پرتاب کرد. در این آزمایش، در دو قطب گوی، او دو حلقه نورانی را مشاهده کرد.
در الکترومغناطیس قانونی به نام قانون دست راست وجود دارد. شکل کلی قانون به این صورت است:
q در این فرمول، بار ذره است و v بردار سرعت ذره و B بردار میدان مغناطیسی است. در آخر، F نیرویی است که به ذره وارد میشود. وقتی یک ذره باردار وارد یک میدان مغناطیسی میشود، نیرویی به آن وارد میشود که جهت آن بر اساس قانون دست راست مشخص است. اگر جهت حرکت ذره (بردار سرعت) عمود بر میدان مغناطیسی باشد، به دلیل اینکه نیرو به سمت داخل است، به دور خطوط میدان مغناطیسی می چرخد (مانند سنگی که با نخ بسته شده و آن را می چرخانیم). اما اگر حرکت ذره دارای مؤلفه موازی با میدان مغناطیسی باشد، این مؤلفه باعث جلو رفتن ذره میشود. در این صورت، ذره مسیر مارپیچی را طی میکند. الکترونها و پروتونهایی که توسط خورشید در فضا پراکنده میشوند، وقتی به زمین می رسند، توسط میدان مغناطیسی زمین به دام می افتند و با حرکتی مارپیچی به سمت قطبها می روند. ذرات به دام افتاده کمربندهای تابشی وان آلن را تشکیل می دهند. (عبور از این کمربند برای فضاپیماهای حاوی سرنشین بسیار خطرناک است).
در قطب ها، میدان مغناطیسی زمین وارد جو آن میشود. درون جو، ذرات باردار با مولکولهای هوا برخورد میکنند و باعث برانگیخته شدن آنها و تابش نور میشوند. این نورها شفق قطبی را می سازند. اتمهای نیتروژن از خود نورهای مایل به قرمز و اتمهای اکسیژن از خود نور سبز منتشر میکنند.
ارتفاع شَفَق قطبی[ویرایش]
دانشمندان به منظور اندازهگیری ارتفاع شفق قطبی از دو نقطه به فاصله چند ده کیلومتر از یکدیگر از آن عکس گرفتند. به کمک چنین عکسهایی میتوان ارتفاع شفقهای قطبی را محاسبه کرد. شفقهای قطبی در بلندای ۳۰۰ تا ۷۰۰ کیلومتری بالای زمین (بیشتر اوقات در بلندی ۱۰۰ کیلومتر) پدیدار میشوند. شفقهای قطبی تابانی گازهای رقیق موجود در هوای زمین هستند، که تا اندازهای به تابانی در لامپهای تخلیه گاز همانند میباشند. شفقهای قطبی یکی از طبیعیترین و زیباترین پدیدههای جو زمین است. پدیده مزبور عبارت از ذرات بارداری هستند که از خورشید به سوی لایههای زیرین جو زمین سرازیر میشوند و روشنیهایی را که کلاً شفقهای قطبی نام دارند پدیدمیآورند. شفق قطبی یا نورهای قطبی، به بهترین صورت از حدود عرض جغرافیایی دایرهٔ اقیانوس منجمد شمالی (یا منجمد جنوبی) دیده میشود. نورهای قطبی درست همانند تابشهای رنگی در آسمان هستند. نورهای قطبی در اثر الکترونهایی که در طول خطوط نیروی میدان مغناطیسی زمین حلقه میزنند، به وجود میآیند. این حلقههای الکترونی وارد جو زمین میشوند و باعث میگردند که گازهای رقیقی که در ارتفاعات بالای جو قرار دارند، همانند نور لامپ فلوئورسنت بدرخشند. این الکترونها عمدتاً از خورشید میرسند و تعداد آنها بستگی به فعالیت خود خورشید دارد. وقتی که سطح خورشید خیلی فعال باشد، ما نورهای قطبی بیشتری را مشاهده میکنیم تا زمانی که خورشید آرامتر است. نور قطبی میتواند شکلهای مختلفی داشته باشد. بعضی وقتها شبیه به پردهٔ آویزان، یا نورهای متحرک یا پرتوهای نور است. رنگ آن نیز تغییر میکند ولی بیشتر مواقع دارای سایهٔ سبز یا صورتی است. شفقها مانند پردههایی عظیم به طول صدها کیلومتر از نورهای رنگی هستند در موارد نادر شفق قطبی ممکن است سراسر آسمان مرئی، از افق تا سمت الراس را بپوشاند
دوره تناوب ظهور شفقهای قطبی[ویرایش]
شفقهای قطبی معمولاً باید فقط در قطبها اتفاق بیافتند. ولی به ندرت در عرضهای جغرافیایی میانی نیز دیده میشوند وقتی که طوفانهای مغناطیسی اتفاق میافتند. طوفانهای مغناطیسی در دورهٔ تناوب ۱۱ سالهٔ خورشیدی یا ۳ سال بعد از این دورهٔ تناوب اتفاق میافتند. در این دورهٔ تناوب ۱۱ ساله که هماکنون نیز ما در آن هستیم میزان فعالیتهای خورشیدی بالا رفته و با رصد خورشید میتوان میزان بالای این فعالیتها را دید. انرژی حاصل نیز از طریق بادهای خورشیدی تأمین میشود.
شفقهای قطبی در مکانی مانند زمین توسط بادهای خورشیدی ایجاد میشود ولی در مشتری اقمار آن به خصوص قمر lo علت وجود این پدیده هستند.
این پدیده همچنین در مریخ و زهره نیز دیده میشود زیرا زهره دارای مغناطیس درونی نیست. شفق قطبی در زهره گاهی اوقات تمام سیاره را نیز میپوشاند. این پدیده در زهره توسط بادهای خورشیدی تولید میشود. همچنین در ۱۴ اوت ۲۰۰۴ در مریخ نیز این پدیده توسط SPICAM به ثبت رسیدهاست.
An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae),[a] sometimes referred to as polar lights (aurora polaris), northern lights (aurora borealis), or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth's sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).
Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. These disturbances alter the trajectories of charged particles in the magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protons, precipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere). The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles.
The word "aurora" is derived from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, who travelled from east to west announcing the coming of the sun. Ancient Greek poets used the name metaphorically to refer to dawn, often mentioning its play of colours across the otherwise dark sky (e.g., "rosy-fingered dawn").
Most auroras occur in a band known as the "auroral zone", which is typically 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles at all local times (or longitudes), most clearly seen at night against a dark sky. A region that currently displays an aurora is called the "auroral oval", a band displaced by the solar wind towards the night side of Earth. Early evidence for a geomagnetic connection comes from the statistics of auroral observations. Elias Loomis (1860), and later Hermann Fritz (1881) and Sophus Tromholt (1881) in more detail, established that the aurora appeared mainly in the auroral zone.
In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis or the northern lights. The former term was coined by Galileo in 1619, from the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. The southern counterpart, the aurora australis or the southern lights, has features almost identical to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone. The aurora australis is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia. The aurora borealis is visible from being close to the center of the Arctic Circle such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
A geomagnetic storm causes the auroral ovals (north and south) to expand, bringing the aurora to lower latitudes. The instantaneous distribution of auroras ("auroral oval") is slightly different, being centered about 3–5° nightward of the magnetic pole, so that auroral arcs reach furthest toward the equator when the magnetic pole in question is in between the observer and the Sun. The aurora can be seen best at this time, which is called magnetic midnight.
Auroras seen within the auroral oval may be directly overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the poleward horizon as a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Auroras also occur poleward of the auroral zone as either diffuse patches or arcs, which can be subvisual.
Auroras are occasionally seen in latitudes below the auroral zone, when a geomagnetic storm temporarily enlarges the auroral oval. Large geomagnetic storms are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after the peak. An electron spirals (gyrates) about a field line at an angle that is determined by its velocity vectors, parallel and perpendicular, respectively, to the local geomagnetic field vector B. This angle is known as the "pitch angle" of the particle. The distance, or radius, of the electron from the field line at any time is known as its Larmor radius. The pitch angle increases as the electron travels to a region of greater field strength nearer to the atmosphere. Thus, it is possible for some particles to return, or mirror, if the angle becomes 90° before entering the atmosphere to collide with the denser molecules there. Other particles that do not mirror enter the atmosphere and contribute to the auroral display over a range of altitudes. Other types of auroras have been observed from space; for example, "poleward arcs" stretching sunward across the polar cap, the related "theta aurora", and "dayside arcs" near noon. These are relatively infrequent and poorly understood. Other interesting effects occur such as flickering aurora, "black aurora" and subvisual red arcs. In addition to all these, a weak glow (often deep red) observed around the two polar cusps, the field lines separating the ones that close through Earth from those that are swept into the tail and close remotely.
The altitudes where auroral emissions occur were revealed by Carl Størmer and his colleagues, who used cameras to triangulate more than 12,000 auroras. They discovered that most of the light is produced between 90 and 150 km above the ground, while extending at times to more than 1000 km. Images of auroras are significantly more common today[when?] than in the past due to the increase in the use of digital cameras that have high enough sensitivities. Film and digital exposure to auroral displays is fraught with difficulties. Due to the different color spectra present, and the temporal changes occurring during the exposure, the results are somewhat unpredictable. Different layers of the film emulsion respond differently to lower light levels, and choice of a film can be very important. Longer exposures superimpose rapidly changing features, and often blanket the dynamic attribute of a display. Higher sensitivity creates issues with graininess.
David Malin pioneered multiple exposure using multiple filters for astronomical photography, recombining the images in the laboratory to recreate the visual display more accurately. For scientific research, proxies are often used, such as ultraviolet, and color-correction to simulate the appearance to humans. Predictive techniques are also used, to indicate the extent of the display, a highly useful tool for aurora hunters. Terrestrial features often find their way into aurora images, making them more accessible and more likely to be published by major websites. Excellent images are possible with standard film (using ISO ratings between 100 and 400) and a single-lens reflex camera with full aperture, a fast lens (f1.4 50 mm, for example), and exposures between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the aurora's brightness.
Forms of auroras
According to Clark (2007), there are four main forms that can be seen from the ground, from least to most visible:
Brekke (1994) also described some auroras as curtains. The similarity to curtains is often enhanced by folds within the arcs. Arcs can fragment or break up into separate, at times rapidly changing, often rayed features that may fill the whole sky. These are also known as discrete auroras, which are at times bright enough to read a newspaper by at night.
These forms are consistent with auroras being shaped by Earth's magnetic field. The appearances of arcs, rays, curtains, and coronas are determined by the shapes of the luminous parts of the atmosphere and a viewer's position.
Colors and wavelengths of auroral light
Changes with time
Auroras change with time. Over the night, they begin with glows and progress towards coronas, although they may not reach them. They tend to fade in the opposite order.
At shorter time scales, auroras can change their appearances and intensity, sometimes so slowly as to be difficult to notice, and at other times rapidly down to the sub-second scale. The phenomenon of pulsating auroras is an example of intensity variations over short timescales, typically with periods of 2–20 seconds. This type of aurora is generally accompanied by decreasing peak emission heights of about 8 km for blue and green emissions and above average solar wind speeds (~ 500 km/s).
Other auroral radiation
In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), discovered in 1972. Ionospheric absorption makes AKR only observable from space. X-ray emissions, originating from the particles associated with auroras, have also been detected.
Aurora noise, similar to a crackling noise, begins about 70 m (230 ft) above Earth's surface and is caused by charged particles in an inversion layer of the atmosphere formed during a cold night. The charged particles discharge when particles from the Sun hit the inversion layer, creating the noise.
In 2016, more than fifty citizen science observations described what was to them an unknown type of aurora which they named "STEVE", for "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement". STEVE is not an aurora but is caused by a 25 km (16 mi) wide ribbon of hot plasma at an altitude of 450 km (280 mi), with a temperature of 6,000 K (5,730 °C; 10,340 °F) and flowing at a speed of 6 km/s (3.7 mi/s) (compared to 10 m/s (33 ft/s) outside the ribbon).
The processes that cause STEVE also are associated with a picket-fence aurora, although the latter can be seen without STEVE. It is an aurora because it is caused by precipitation of electrons in the atmosphere but it appears outside the auroral oval, closer to the equator than typical auroras. When the picket-fence aurora appears with STEVE, it is below.
First reported in 2020  and confirmed in 2021  the dune aurora phenomenon was discovered by Finnish citizen scientists. It consists of regularly spaced, parallel stripes of brighter emission in the green diffuse aurora which give the impression of sand dunes. The phenomenon is believed to be caused by the modulation of atomic oxygen density by a large-scale atmospheric wave travelling horizontally in a waveguide trough an inversion layer in the mesosphere in presence of electron precipitation.
A full understanding of the physical processes which lead to different types of auroras is still incomplete, but the basic cause involves the interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetosphere. The varying intensity of the solar wind produces effects of different magnitudes but includes one or more of the following physical scenarios.
The details of these phenomena are not fully understood. However, it is clear that the prime source of auroral particles is the solar wind feeding the magnetosphere, the reservoir containing the radiation zones and temporarily magnetically-trapped particles confined by the geomagnetic field, coupled with particle acceleration processes.
The immediate cause of the ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents leading to auroral emissions was discovered in 1960, when a pioneering rocket flight from Fort Churchill in Canada revealed a flux of electrons entering the atmosphere from above. Since then an extensive collection of measurements has been acquired painstakingly and with steadily improving resolution since the 1960s by many research teams using rockets and satellites to traverse the auroral zone. The main findings have been that auroral arcs and other bright forms are due to electrons that have been accelerated during the final few 10,000 km or so of their plunge into the atmosphere. These electrons often, but not always, exhibit a peak in their energy distribution, and are preferentially aligned along the local direction of the magnetic field.
Electrons mainly responsible for diffuse and pulsating auroras have, in contrast, a smoothly falling energy distribution, and an angular (pitch-angle) distribution favouring directions perpendicular to the local magnetic field. Pulsations were discovered to originate at or close to the equatorial crossing point of auroral zone magnetic field lines. Protons are also associated with auroras, both discrete and diffuse.
Auroras and the atmosphere
Auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth's upper atmosphere, above 80 km (50 mi), from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen atoms and nitrogen based molecules returning from an excited state to ground state. They are ionized or excited by the collision of particles precipitated into the atmosphere. Both incoming electrons and protons may be involved. Excitation energy is lost within the atmosphere by the emission of a photon, or by collision with another atom or molecule:
Oxygen is unusual in terms of its return to ground state: it can take 0.7 seconds to emit the 557.7 nm green light and up to two minutes for the red 630.0 nm emission. Collisions with other atoms or molecules absorb the excitation energy and prevent emission, this process is called collisional quenching. Because the highest parts of the atmosphere contain a higher percentage of oxygen and lower particle densities, such collisions are rare enough to allow time for oxygen to emit red light. Collisions become more frequent progressing down into the atmosphere due to increasing density, so that red emissions do not have time to happen, and eventually, even green light emissions are prevented.
This is why there is a color differential with altitude; at high altitudes oxygen red dominates, then oxygen green and nitrogen blue/purple/red, then finally nitrogen blue/purple/red when collisions prevent oxygen from emitting anything. Green is the most common color. Then comes pink, a mixture of light green and red, followed by pure red, then yellow (a mixture of red and green), and finally, pure blue.
Auroras and the ionosphere
Bright auroras are generally associated with Birkeland currents (Schield et al., 1969; Zmuda and Armstrong, 1973), which flow down into the ionosphere on one side of the pole and out on the other. In between, some of the current connects directly through the ionospheric E layer (125 km); the rest ("region 2") detours, leaving again through field lines closer to the equator and closing through the "partial ring current" carried by magnetically trapped plasma. The ionosphere is an ohmic conductor, so some consider that such currents require a driving voltage, which an, as yet unspecified, dynamo mechanism can supply. Electric field probes in orbit above the polar cap suggest voltages of the order of 40,000 volts, rising up to more than 200,000 volts during intense magnetic storms. In another interpretation, the currents are the direct result of electron acceleration into the atmosphere by wave/particle interactions.
Ionospheric resistance has a complex nature, and leads to a secondary Hall current flow. By a strange twist of physics, the magnetic disturbance on the ground due to the main current almost cancels out, so most of the observed effect of auroras is due to a secondary current, the auroral electrojet. An auroral electrojet index (measured in nanotesla) is regularly derived from ground data and serves as a general measure of auroral activity. Kristian Birkeland deduced that the currents flowed in the east–west directions along the auroral arc, and such currents, flowing from the dayside toward (approximately) midnight were later named "auroral electrojets" (see also Birkeland currents).
Interaction of the solar wind with Earth
Earth is constantly immersed in the solar wind, a rarefied flow of magnetized hot plasma (a gas of free electrons and positive ions) emitted by the Sun in all directions, a result of the two-million-degree temperature of the Sun's outermost layer, the corona. The quiescent solar wind reaches Earth with a velocity typically around 400 km/s, a density of around 5 ions/cm3 and a magnetic field intensity of around 2–5 nT (for comparison, Earth's surface field is typically 30,000–50,000 nT). During magnetic storms, in particular, flows can be several times faster; the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) may also be much stronger. Joan Feynman deduced in the 1970s that the long-term averages of solar wind speed correlated with geomagnetic activity. Her work resulted from data collected by the Explorer 33 spacecraft.
The solar wind and magnetosphere consist of plasma (ionized gas), which conducts electricity. It is well known (since Michael Faraday's work around 1830) that when an electrical conductor is placed within a magnetic field while relative motion occurs in a direction that the conductor cuts across (or is cut by), rather than along, the lines of the magnetic field, an electric current is induced within the conductor. The strength of the current depends on a) the rate of relative motion, b) the strength of the magnetic field, c) the number of conductors ganged together and d) the distance between the conductor and the magnetic field, while the direction of flow is dependent upon the direction of relative motion. Dynamos make use of this basic process ("the dynamo effect"), any and all conductors, solid or otherwise are so affected, including plasmas and other fluids.
The IMF originates on the Sun, linked to the sunspots, and its field lines (lines of force) are dragged out by the solar wind. That alone would tend to line them up in the Sun-Earth direction, but the rotation of the Sun angles them at Earth by about 45 degrees forming a spiral in the ecliptic plane, known as the Parker spiral. The field lines passing Earth are therefore usually linked to those near the western edge ("limb") of the visible Sun at any time.
The solar wind and the magnetosphere, being two electrically conducting fluids in relative motion, should be able in principle to generate electric currents by dynamo action and impart energy from the flow of the solar wind. However, this process is hampered by the fact that plasmas conduct readily along magnetic field lines, but less readily perpendicular to them. Energy is more effectively transferred by the temporary magnetic connection between the field lines of the solar wind and those of the magnetosphere. Unsurprisingly this process is known as magnetic reconnection. As already mentioned, it happens most readily when the interplanetary field is directed southward, in a similar direction to the geomagnetic field in the inner regions of both the north magnetic pole and south magnetic pole.
Earth's magnetosphere is shaped by the impact of the solar wind on Earth's magnetic field. This forms an obstacle to the flow, diverting it, at an average distance of about 70,000 km (11 Earth radii or Re), producing a bow shock 12,000 km to 15,000 km (1.9 to 2.4 Re) further upstream. The width of the magnetosphere abreast of Earth is typically 190,000 km (30 Re), and on the night side a long "magnetotail" of stretched field lines extends to great distances (> 200 Re).
The high latitude magnetosphere is filled with plasma as the solar wind passes Earth. The flow of plasma into the magnetosphere increases with additional turbulence, density, and speed in the solar wind. This flow is favored by a southward component of the IMF, which can then directly connect to the high latitude geomagnetic field lines. The flow pattern of magnetospheric plasma is mainly from the magnetotail toward Earth, around Earth and back into the solar wind through the magnetopause on the day-side. In addition to moving perpendicular to Earth's magnetic field, some magnetospheric plasma travels down along Earth's magnetic field lines, gains additional energy and loses it to the atmosphere in the auroral zones. The cusps of the magnetosphere, separating geomagnetic field lines that close through Earth from those that close remotely allow a small amount of solar wind to directly reach the top of the atmosphere, producing an auroral glow.
On 26 February 2008, THEMIS probes were able to determine, for the first time, the triggering event for the onset of magnetospheric substorms. Two of the five probes, positioned approximately one third the distance to the Moon, measured events suggesting a magnetic reconnection event 96 seconds prior to auroral intensification.
Geomagnetic storms that ignite auroras may occur more often during the months around the equinoxes. It is not well understood, but geomagnetic storms may vary with Earth's seasons. Two factors to consider are the tilt of both the solar and Earth's axis to the ecliptic plane. As Earth orbits throughout a year, it experiences an interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) from different latitudes of the Sun, which is tilted at 8 degrees. Similarly, the 23-degree tilt of Earth's axis about which the geomagnetic pole rotates with a diurnal variation changes the daily average angle that the geomagnetic field presents to the incident IMF throughout a year. These factors combined can lead to minor cyclical changes in the detailed way that the IMF links to the magnetosphere. In turn, this affects the average probability of opening a door[colloquialism] through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth's inner magnetosphere and thereby enhance auroras. Recent evidence in 2021 has shown that individual separate substorms may in fact be correlated networked communities.
Auroral particle acceleration
Just as there are many types of aurora, there are many different mechanisms that accelerate auroral particles into the atmosphere. Electron aurora in Earth's auroral zone (i.e. commonly visible aurora) can be split into two main categories with different immediate causes: diffuse and discrete aurora. Diffuse aurora appear relatively structureless to an observer on the ground, with indistinct edges and amorphous forms. Discrete aurora are structured into distinct features with well-defined edges such as arcs, rays and coronas; they also tend to be much brighter than the diffuse aurora.
In both cases, the electrons that eventually cause the aurora start out as electrons trapped by the magnetic field in Earth's magnetosphere. These trapped particles bounce back and forth along magnetic field lines and are prevented from hitting the atmosphere by the magnetic mirror formed by the increasing magnetic field strength closer to Earth. The magnetic mirror's ability to trap a particle depends on the particle's pitch angle: the angle between its direction of motion and the local magnetic field. An aurora is created by processes that decrease the pitch angle of many individual electrons, freeing them from the magnetic trap and causing them to hit the atmosphere.
In the case of diffuse auroras, the electron pitch angles are altered by their interaction with various plasma waves. Each interaction is essentially wave-particle scattering; the electron energy after interacting with the wave is similar to its energy before interaction, but the direction of motion is altered. If the final direction of motion after scattering is close to the field line (specifically, if it falls within the loss cone) then the electron will hit the atmosphere. Diffuse auroras are caused by the collective effect of many such scattered electrons hitting the atmosphere. The process is mediated by the plasma waves, which become stronger during periods of high geomagnetic activity, leading to increased diffuse aurora at those times.
In the case of discrete auroras, the trapped electrons are accelerated toward Earth by electric fields that form at an altitude of about 4000–12000 km in the "auroral acceleration region". The electric fields point away from Earth (i.e. upward) along the magnetic field line. Electrons moving downward through these fields gain a substantial amount of energy (on the order of a few keV) in the direction along the magnetic field line toward Earth. This field-aligned acceleration decreases the pitch angle for all of the electrons passing through the region, causing many of them to hit the upper atmosphere. In contrast to the scattering process leading to diffuse auroras, the electric field increases the kinetic energy of all of the electrons transiting downward through the acceleration region by the same amount. This accelerates electrons starting from the magnetosphere with initially low energies (10s of eV or less) to energies required to create an aurora (100s of eV or greater), allowing that large source of particles to contribute to creating auroral light.
The accelerated electrons carry an electric current along the magnetic field lines (a Birkeland current). Since the electric field points in the same direction as the current, there is a net conversion of electromagnetic energy into particle energy in the auroral acceleration region (an electric load). The energy to power this load is eventually supplied by the magnetized solar wind flowing around the obstacle of Earth's magnetic field, although exactly how that power flows through the magnetosphere is still an active area of research. While the energy to power the aurora is ultimately derived from the solar wind, the electrons themselves do not travel directly from the solar wind into Earth's auroral zone; magnetic field lines from these regions do not connect to the solar wind, so there is no direct access for solar wind electrons.
Some auroral features are also created by electrons accelerated by Alfvén waves. At small wavelengths (comparable to the electron inertial length or ion gyroradius), Alfvén waves develop a significant electric field parallel to the background magnetic field; this can accelerate electrons due to a process of Landau damping. If the electrons have a speed close to that of the wave's phase velocity, they are accelerated in a manner analogous to a surfer catching an ocean wave. This constantly-changing wave electric field can accelerate electrons along the field line, causing some of them to hit the atmosphere. Electrons accelerated by this mechanism tend to have a broad energy spectrum, in contrast to the sharply-peaked energy spectrum typical of electrons accelerated by quasi-static electric fields.
In addition to the discrete and diffuse electron aurora, proton aurora is caused when magnetospheric protons collide with the upper atmosphere. The proton gains an electron in the interaction, and the resulting neutral hydrogen atom emits photons. The resulting light is too dim to be seen with the naked eye. Other aurora not covered by the above discussion include transpolar arcs (formed poleward of the auroral zone), cusp aurora (formed in two small high-latitude areas on the dayside) and some non-terrestrial auroras.
Auroral events of historical significance
The discovery of a 1770 Japanese diary in 2017 depicting auroras above the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto suggested that the storm may have been 7% larger than the Carrington event, which affected telegraph networks.
The auroras that resulted from the "great geomagnetic storm" on both 28 August and 2 September 1859, however, are thought to be the most spectacular in recent recorded history. In a paper to the Royal Society on 21 November 1861, Balfour Stewart described both auroral events as documented by a self-recording magnetograph at the Kew Observatory and established the connection between the 2 September 1859 auroral storm and the Carrington–Hodgson flare event when he observed that "It is not impossible to suppose that in this case our luminary was taken in the act." The second auroral event, which occurred on 2 September 1859, as a result of the exceptionally intense Carrington–Hodgson white light solar flare on 1 September 1859, produced auroras, so widespread and extraordinarily bright that they were seen and reported in published scientific measurements, ship logs, and newspapers throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. It was reported by The New York Times that in Boston on Friday 2 September 1859 the aurora was "so brilliant that at about one o'clock ordinary print could be read by the light". One o'clock EST time on Friday 2 September would have been 6:00 GMT; the self-recording magnetograph at the Kew Observatory was recording the geomagnetic storm, which was then one hour old, at its full intensity. Between 1859 and 1862, Elias Loomis published a series of nine papers on the Great Auroral Exhibition of 1859 in the American Journal of Science where he collected worldwide reports of the auroral event.
That aurora is thought to have been produced by one of the most intense coronal mass ejections in history. It is also notable for the fact that it is the first time where the phenomena of auroral activity and electricity were unambiguously linked. This insight was made possible not only due to scientific magnetometer measurements of the era, but also as a result of a significant portion of the 125,000 miles (201,000 km) of telegraph lines then in service being significantly disrupted for many hours throughout the storm. Some telegraph lines, however, seem to have been of the appropriate length and orientation to produce a sufficient geomagnetically induced current from the electromagnetic field to allow for continued communication with the telegraph operator power supplies switched off. The following conversation occurred between two operators of the American Telegraph Line between Boston and Portland, Maine, on the night of 2 September 1859 and reported in the Boston Traveler:
The conversation was carried on for around two hours using no battery power at all and working solely with the current induced by the aurora, and it was said that this was the first time on record that more than a word or two was transmitted in such manner. Such events led to the general conclusion that
Historical views and folklore
An aurora was described by the Greek explorer Pytheas in the 4th century BC. Seneca wrote about auroras in the first book of his Naturales Quaestiones, classifying them, for instance as pithaei ('barrel-like'); chasmata ('chasm'); pogoniae ('bearded'); cyparissae ('like cypress trees'), and describing their manifold colors. He wrote about whether they were above or below the clouds, and recalled that under Tiberius, an aurora formed above the port city of Ostia that was so intense and red that a cohort of the army, stationed nearby for fire duty, galloped to the rescue. It has been suggested that Pliny the Elder depicted the aurora borealis in his Natural History, when he refers to trabes, chasma, 'falling red flames' and 'daylight in the night'.
The history of China has rich, and possibly the oldest, records of the aurora borealis. On an autumn around 2000 BC, according to a legend, a young woman named Fubao was sitting alone in the wilderness by a bay, when suddenly a "magical band of light" appeared like "moving clouds and flowing water", turning into a bright halo around the Big Dipper, which cascaded a pale silver brilliance, illuminating the earth and making shapes and shadows seem alive. Moved by this sight, Fubao became pregnant and gave birth to a son, the Emperor Xuanyuan, known legendarily as the initiator of Chinese culture and the ancestor of all Chinese people. In the Shanhaijing, a creature named 'Shilong' is described to be like a red dragon shining in the night sky with a body a thousand miles long. In ancient times, the Chinese did not have a fixed word for the aurora, so it was named according to the different shapes of the aurora, such as "Sky Dog (“天狗”)", "Sword/Knife Star (“刀星”)", "Chiyou banner (“蚩尤旗”)", "Sky's Open Eyes (“天开眼”)", and "Stars like Rain (“星陨如雨”)".
In Japanese folklore, pheasants were considered messengers from heaven. However, researchers from Japan's Graduate University for Advanced Studies and National Institute of Polar Research claimed in March 2020 that red pheasant tails witnessed across the night sky over Japan in 620 A.D., might be a red aurora produced during a magnetic storm.
In the traditions of Aboriginal Australians, the Aurora Australis is commonly associated with fire. For example, the Gunditjmara people of western Victoria called auroras puae buae ('ashes'), while the Gunai people of eastern Victoria perceived auroras as bushfires in the spirit world. The Dieri people of South Australia say that an auroral display is kootchee, an evil spirit creating a large fire. Similarly, the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia refer to auroras seen over Kangaroo Island as the campfires of spirits in the 'Land of the Dead'. Aboriginal people in southwest Queensland believe the auroras to be the fires of the Oola Pikka, ghostly spirits who spoke to the people through auroras. Sacred law forbade anyone except male elders from watching or interpreting the messages of ancestors they believed were transmitted through an aurora.
In Scandinavia, the first mention of norðrljós (the northern lights) is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland, and he gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires; that the sun flares could reach around the world to its night side; or that glaciers could store energy so that they eventually became fluorescent.
Walter William Bryant wrote in his book Kepler (1920) that Tycho Brahe "seems to have been something of a homœopathist, for he recommends sulfur to cure infectious diseases 'brought on by the sulphurous vapours of the Aurora Borealis'".
In 1778, Benjamin Franklin theorized in his paper Aurora Borealis, Suppositions and Conjectures towards forming an Hypothesis for its Explanation that an aurora was caused by a concentration of electrical charge in the polar regions intensified by the snow and moisture in the air:
Observations of the rhythmic movement of compass needles due to the influence of an aurora were confirmed in the Swedish city of Uppsala by Anders Celsius and Olof Hiorter. In 1741, Hiorter was able to link large magnetic fluctuations with an aurora being observed overhead. This evidence helped to support their theory that 'magnetic storms' are responsible for such compass fluctuations.
A variety of Native American myths surround the spectacle. The European explorer Samuel Hearne traveled with Chipewyan Dene in 1771 and recorded their views on the ed-thin ('caribou'). According to Hearne, the Dene people saw the resemblance between an aurora and the sparks produced when caribou fur is stroked. They believed that the lights were the spirits of their departed friends dancing in the sky, and when they shone brightly it meant that their deceased friends were very happy.
During the night after the Battle of Fredericksburg, an aurora was seen from the battlefield. The Confederate Army took this as a sign that God was on their side, as the lights were rarely seen so far south. The painting Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church is widely interpreted to represent the conflict of the American Civil War.
A mid 19th-century British source says auroras were a rare occurrence before the 18th century. It quotes Halley as saying that before the aurora of 1716, no such phenomenon had been recorded for more than 80 years, and none of any consequence since 1574. It says no appearance is recorded in the Transactions of the French Academy of Sciences between 1666 and 1716. And that one aurora recorded in Berlin Miscellany for 1797 was called a very rare event. One observed in 1723 at Bologna was stated to be the first ever seen there. Celsius (1733) states the oldest residents of Uppsala thought the phenomenon a great rarity before 1716. The period between approximately 1645 to 1715 corresponds to the Maunder minimum in sunspot activity.
In Robert W. Service's satirical poem "The Ballad of the Northern Lights" (1908) a Yukon prospector discovers that the aurora is the glow from a radium mine. He stakes his claim, then goes to town looking for investors.
Both Jupiter and Saturn have magnetic fields that are stronger than Earth's (Jupiter's equatorial field strength is 4.3 Gauss, compared to 0.3 Gauss for Earth), and both have extensive radiation belts. Auroras have been observed on both gas planets, most clearly using the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Cassini and Galileo spacecraft, as well as on Uranus and Neptune.
The aurorae on Saturn seem, like Earth's, to be powered by the solar wind. However, Jupiter's aurorae are more complex. Jupiter's main auroral oval is associated with the plasma produced by the volcanic moon Io, and the transport of this plasma within the planet's magnetosphere. An uncertain fraction of Jupiter's aurorae are powered by the solar wind. In addition, the moons, especially Io, are also powerful sources of aurora. These arise from electric currents along field lines ("field aligned currents"), generated by a dynamo mechanism due to the relative motion between the rotating planet and the moving moon. Io, which has active volcanism and an ionosphere, is a particularly strong source, and its currents also generate radio emissions, which have been studied since 1955. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, auroras over Io, Europa and Ganymede have all been observed.
Auroras have also been observed on Venus and Mars. Venus has no magnetic field and so Venusian auroras appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed over the full disc of the planet. A Venusian aurora originates when electrons from the solar wind collide with the night-side atmosphere.
An aurora was detected on Mars, on 14 August 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express. The aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria, in the region of 177° East, 52° South. The total size of the emission region was about 30 km across, and possibly about 8 km high. By analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor, scientists observed that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized. This correlation indicated that the origin of the light emission was a flux of electrons moving along the crust magnetic lines and exciting the upper atmosphere of Mars.
Between 2014 and 2016, cometary auroras were observed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by multiple instruments on the Rosetta spacecraft. The auroras were observed at far-ultraviolet wavelengths. Coma observations revealed atomic emissions of hydrogen and oxygen caused by the photodissociation (not photoionization, like in terrestrial auroras) of water molecules in the comet's coma. The interaction of accelerated electrons from the solar wind with gas particles in the coma is responsible for the aurora. Since comet 67P has no magnetic field, the aurora is diffusely spread around the comet.
Exoplanets, such as hot Jupiters, have been suggested to experience ionization in their upper atmospheres and generate an aurora modified by weather in their turbulent tropospheres. However, there is no current detection of an exoplanet aurora.
The first ever extra-solar auroras were discovered in July 2015 over the brown dwarf star LSR J1835+3259. The mainly red aurora was found to be a million times brighter than the Northern Lights, a result of the charged particles interacting with hydrogen in the atmosphere. It has been speculated that stellar winds may be stripping off material from the surface of the brown dwarf to produce their own electrons. Another possible explanation for the auroras is that an as-yet-undetected body around the dwarf star is throwing off material, as is the case with Jupiter and its moon Io.