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Aurora

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One of the biggest solar flares so far this year unleashed a strong geomagnetic storm Thursday that painted night skies with the shimmering hues of the Northern Lights. The wavering aurora light is caused by the electromagnetic interplay between the speeding particles of a coronal mass ejection from the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field. These solar flares are expected to increase in the months ahead as the sun ramps up to its solar maximum, which is expected to peak in late 2013.


Truckers left the paths of their tail lights below the bright night sky as they drove along the ice road on Prosperous Lake near Yellowknife, North West Territories on Thursday. (Bill Braden, The Canadian Press/Associated Press)


The Northern Lights were visible near Fáskrúðsfjörður on the east coast of Iceland, left, and near Yellowknife, North West Territories, right. (Jonina Oskardottir/Associated Press, left; Bill Braden, The Canadian Press/Associated Press, right)


The aurora borealis near Yellowknife, North West Territories. (Bill Braden, The Canadian Press/Associated Press)


The sky glowed over power lines at mile 9 on the Old Glenn Highway near Butte, Alaska. (Oscar Edwin Avellaneda/Reuters)

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A riot of color in the night sky above the Arctic Circle gave local photographers a spectacular light show this September. Sometimes called the aurora borealis, the northern lights are caused by streams of particle-charged solar winds that hit the Earth’s magnetic field, causing hues of green and pink to shimmer against the backdrop of the stars. This year, professional and amateur photographers were able to capture the lights in more southerly latitudes than usual. Herewith, a small sampling of what they saw.

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NASA

Many auroral displays appear green, but sometimes, as in this Sept. 26 image from the International Space Station, other colors such as red can appear.

Alan Boyle writes

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight": That's one of the oldest sayings in the book when it comes to weather prediction, but this picture adds a new twist. The red sky is an aurora, seen from above by astronauts on the International Space Station. And the weather that's causing this phenomenon is space weather from the sun.

Auroras arise when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with atoms in the upper atmosphere, sparking emissions of light at various wavelengths. The displays are most likely to be visible around Earth's magnetic poles, where the interaction is strongest. The sun has been going through an upswing of activity over the past couple of months, which has generated a colorful series of northern and southern lights.

North or south, the most common shade of auroral light is green. That's the wavelength that's typically emitted when solar particles mix it up with oxygen atoms. But if there are lower-energy collisions with oxygen atoms or nitrogen atoms, the emissions edge toward the reddish end of the spectrum. That's what's happening in this picture, captured on Monday. You should be able to make out the space station's solar panels toward the upper left corner of the photo.

Space weather can create disruptions for satellite communication systems as well as electric grids on Earth, but so far the most noticeable effect from this year's solar storms has been a string of glorious auroras. We weathered the latest geomagnetic storm overnight, and SpaceWeather.com is offering up a glorious selection of snapshots from the event — including this red-and-green stunner from Russia's Kola Peninsula.

To learn more about the colors of the aurora, check out this "Causes of Color" explanation. And if you live in northern or southern climes, there's always a chance of seeing the lights for yourself. Last night, the aurora was visible from Minnesota, Germany and Poland in the north, as well as New Zealand in the south. The University of Alaska at Fairbanks provides this handy-dandy online guide to aurora-watching.

More auroral glories:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.

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