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Northern Lights mystery solved?

What causes the aurora, better known as the Northern Lights? That is a question that scientists have been attempting to answer for decades, coming to the general conclusion that the Lights are caused by an interaction of highly-charged particles in the solar wind and atoms in earth’s upper atmosphere.However, the exact mechanics of what creates the dazzling displays has remained a bit of an unknown, until now.A team of researchers led by Jan Egedal at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced a surprising finding: the magnetotail, a region of the Earth’s magnetosphere where aurora typically form is about 1,000 times bigger than previously thought. In the magnetotail, electrons are accelerated to tremendous speeds, which then stretches the magnetotail out into space, electrons in tow. Finally, when the magnetotail can only stretch so far, it springs back like a rubber band, throwing the electrons back toward the upper atmosphere at tremendous speeds, sparking the atomic collisions that produce aurora. Advertisement Want to see Northern Lights in the Cleveland area?For people living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Alaska, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and other such high-latitude places. For those at mid latitudes, such as Cleveland’s 41 degrees North, auroras don’t find their way into these skies very often.However, it never hurts to look.Right now, the Sun is headed for solar maximum, the peak in activity in its 11-year cycle. Because blasts of energy from the Sun are sure to become more powerful and frequent in the future, the chances of aurora working their way down to the continental United States is sure to increase in the coming years. In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon from the Cleveland area. Also, just last October, another dazzling display of aurora was visible over Ohio.Now for the final variable, weather. For cloud predictions, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecastand, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. The bad news: things are looking to be really cloudy today in the Cleveland area. Live somewhere else? Find a clock¬†and see if it will be clear near you.¬†Like this?Hit the ‘subscribe’ button for automatic email updates when I write something new!Want to read more of my stuff? Check out my other Examiner columns!Space News ExaminerPhotography ExaminerCleveland Photography ExaminerWant even more? Check out my personal website:Bodzash Photography & Astronomy

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