When the Sun Tickles the Earth’s Air: Aurora Time-Lapse Video

The entire universe in blog form
Oct. 6 2013 8:00 AM

Time-Lapse Video: Aurora Over Sweden

aurora over Sweden
An aurora arches over Sweden, the product of a storm from the Sun.

Photo by Göran Strand, used by permission

The Sun has been stubbornly refusing to get out of bed these days; although it should be approaching (or already at) the peak of its 11-year magnetic cycle, the activity it’s been showing is best described as “lackadaisical”. At the peak of its last cycle (in 2003) it was blasting out enormous storms so big they pegged the meter, but this time we can barely get it to mildly belch.

But it does have some signs of life: Last week it blew out a mild coronal mass ejection, a storm of subatomic particles, toward Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field acted like a net, catching those particles, and funneling them down to the poles. When they slammed into the upper atmosphere, the atoms and molecules up there responded by glowing, creating an aurora.

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Astrophotographer Göran Strand set up his camera and took some amazing shots of the display, and also created this lovely (if too short!) time-lapse animation of the event:

Strand is located in Östersund, in mid-Sweden, at a latitude of about 63° north, a prime spot for seeing the northern lights. He’s taken quite a few aurora pictures over time, and you should go take a look. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Will the Sun continue to laze about, or will activity pick up? There’s no way to know. Your best bet is to keep your eyes on the Solar Weather Protection Center, which provides details on the Sun’s temper. I’ll note that although it’s a government site, SWPC is deemed to be vital to life and property, so it will stay up during the shutdown.

I'll add that I've featured Strand's work on the blog before; notable a picture of the Sun, one of a comet and a galaxy (!), and a third of another aurora.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.