Auroras, Buzz, Northern Lights, Science, Space, Space Exploration

A strong solar storm may bring auroras to your backyard Wednesday

Auroras in Norway.

Image: Paul Edmundson/REX/Shutterstock

A burst of hot plasma spit out by the sun is about to slam into the Earth, sparking possible auroras that could be visible in the U.S. from the Midwest to the Northeast.

The plasma — called a coronal mass ejection (CME) — was shot out from the sun during an M5-class flare on Sept. 4. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center is forecasting that the CME will create a strong solar storm that could supercharge auroras, allowing them to be seen in lower latitudes than usual. 

The aurora prediction map.

The aurora prediction map.

“Current analysis and forecasts reflect CME arrival late on 6 September, 2017; with CME effects continuing into 7 September,” the center said in a statement.

According to the center’s best guess, the aurora may be seen as far south as Ohio or Pennsylvania, assuming clear skies. If you want to keep an eye on auroras in your area, check the Space Weather Prediction Center’s 30-minute forecast.

The sun has been pretty active this week thanks to a series of sunspots that rotated into view of the Earth. 

On Wednesday, one of those sunspots unleashed two huge flares. One of them — an X9.3-class flare — is the largest flare we’ve observed in about 10 years, according to some estimates. 

It looks like the flares did produce a CME, though it’s not yet clear exactly where that plasma will be heading. The Space Weather Prediction Center is still analyzing data to see exactly what we’re in store for when it comes to the X-flares and possible impacts.

All this activity is a little odd for a star that’s nearing the low-point in its 11-year solar cycle that brings it from being a very active star to a quiet one. 

Auroras occur in skies above Earth’s surface when charged particles from the sun are drawn down along magnetic field lines to the planet’s upper atmosphere.

If the solar particles make it into the atmosphere, they then can impact neutral molecules, causing them to glow. More powerful solar storms can cause the oval of the aurora to dip into lower latitudes. 

Extreme solar storms do more than just charge up the auroras. These kinds of plasma bursts can harm satellites in space and even mess with the electrical grid on Earth. 

That said, it’s still unclear what the impacts of the most recent flares could be on our planet. 

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