Scientists Finally Just Confirmed the Origin of Northern Lights for Very First Time

Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 10:50AM
Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 10:50AM
Scientists Finally Just Confirmed the Origin of Northern Lights for Very First Time
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The Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely in the planet's magnetosphere?

Scientists have seen it.

In something of a first for both astronomers and Simpsons meme fans alike, the cause of the Aurora Borealis has finally been definitively proven—scientists have been able to observe the particle showers in Earth's orbit that cause the trippy light show. The sky's awake, so scientists are awake, so they have to experiment!

It's long been theorized that the Northern Lights are caused by electrons crashing against the planet's magnetosphere, but without visual confirmation of this event, it's been impossible to guarantee that this is the cause.

Finally, though, scientists from the University of Tokyo have managed to observe the electrons on their way into the magnetosphere, giving us a solid explanation for one of the Earth's most ethereal quirks.

According to the University of Tokyo's Satoshi Kasahara:

Opening quote
"Auroral substorms are caused by global reconfiguration in the magnetosphere, which releases stored solar wind energy. They are characterized by auroral brightening from dusk to midnight, followed by violent motions of distinct auroral arcs that eventually break up, and emerge as diffuse, pulsating auroral patches at dawn. "We, for the first time, directly observed scattering of electrons by chorus waves generating particle precipitation into the Earth's atmosphere. The precipitating electron flux was sufficiently intense to generate pulsating aurora."
Closing quote

The electron particles initially arrive at Earth as part of plasma waves (known as chorus waves) which are expelled from the sun. Many of these particles are absorbed and held onto by the planet's magnetosphere, which causes electrons to rain down into the upper atmosphere. This creates a lot of funky colors and lights, which can be seen at certain times by those who are close enough to the planet's poles to spot where the electrons congregate.

The discovery was made thanks to the Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace (ERG) satellite, which is the work of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The ERG satellite contains a specialized electron sensor which is able to differentiate between different particles in the magnetosphere. Traditional sensors aren't quite as capable of picking out electrons of different origins, which is why this satellite was able to make this breakthrough.

As is often the case with this kind of scientific advancement, now that scientists have successfully observed the origin of the Aurora Borealis, they're going to be able to study it at greater length, analyzing how these particles form and what fluctuations within the Earth's magnetosphere do to affect the lights.

The reason why people from Albany call hamburgers "steamed hams", despite the fact that they are obviously grilled, remains a mystery for scientists to solve another day.