Whether you know them by their scientific name, the aurora borealis, or their colloquial name, the Northern lights, there’s no denying that the brilliant, multi-colored natural phenomenon has thrilled humanity for generations. I mean, what’s not to love about a display of gorgeous lights in the night sky, surrounded by stars? However, while it’s easy to camp out when the weather report says that there will be aurora borealis activity that evening, how much do you really know about the phenomenon itself? Where do the northern lights come from? Who was the first to spot them? Why are there different colours? Why are they seen in the southern hemisphere as well, despite their name? What causes the different colours? There are so many questions surrounding the stunning lights.
While pretty much everyone knows of the northern lights, most of us don’t know too much about them – and we’re here to help. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the aurora borealis. Next time you manage to catch a gorgeous light show, you can stun all your friends with your facts.
10 They’re visible from space
It can be extremely rewarding to get a good glimpse of the aurora borealis, but given that they’re easily visible with the naked eye and appear to be so close you could almost touch them, you would assume that they’re not easily perceptible from space, right? Well, not quite. Apparently, the phenomenon is visible from space, and the International Space Station’s orbit can even take it through the lights. So, as if astronauts weren’t lucky enough with their ability to see outer space from their spot on the ISS, they also get to take the best aurora borealis snaps.
9 They’re very tough to accurately predict
There are certain phenomena like meteor showers that experts know are going to be happening far ahead of time. It’s easy to prepare and get the best spot to see the sights, as they occur with a reasonable degree of predictability. However, that’s not the case with the aurora borealis. Apparently, knowing the shape of a magnetic field in a CME (coronal mass ejection) is difficult. Scientists can’t really tell which direction the field will be pointing until it’s already happening, and once it happens, it’ll either be a show-stopping light-filled sky, or just a regular old night of darkness.
8 They happen in the south, too
The aurora borealis has a well known nickname – the northern lights. Given the nickname, many assume that they’re only visible in the north, in places like Canada and Norway. While northern aurora borealis lovers are definitely treated to many breathtaking shows, the aurora borealis does show up in the south as well – although they’re called the aurora australis there. However, just based on the earth’s geography, the south pole is very inhospitable and not easily accessible, and there aren’t many places that are located so far south (unlike the north pole, which has a reasonable number of countries nearby). So, while the lights are possible in the south, the fact that they are seen so often in the north means that most people associate them with the one locale.
7 The next big cycle will be in 2024
Okay, the explanation of this fact might not make much difference to those of us who aren’t scientifically inclined, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating thing to know. Auroras apparently occur with more frequency, and are just overall more breathtakingly vibrant and beautiful, when there is high solar sunspot activity. The solar sunspot activity goes through cycles over the course of roughly eleven years. The last climax of high solar sunspot activity occurred in 2013, so while you’ll likely be able to see tons of shows in the next decade, keep the year 2024 in your calendar – that’s when you’re likely to see some truly phenomenal displays lighting up the sky.
6 Different ions make the different colors
Rainbows are fairly predictable in terms of their colours. While you know that different rainbows vary in intensity, you generally always say the same red to violet spectrum on the bands. However, the northern lights come in different colours – although some are more common than others. You see, the colour of the lights depend on which atmospheric gases are colliding to produce the lights. For example, more oxygen creates a green, or sometimes reddish hue. Nitrogen will create a blue or red coloured display, and helium yields either blue or purple. The most common colour is the pale greenish hue produced by oxygen molecules.
5 Many famous intellectuals have studied the lights
As with any natural phenomenon, the northern lights have provoked the curiosity of many great minds throughout history. After all, when you see vibrant colours appearing in the sky intermittently, who wouldn’t be curious to figure out what it’s all about and what’s causing it? Well, countless thinkers throughout history have tried to piece together the northern lights, including Aristotle, Seneca, Descartes, Tycho de Brahe and Benjamin Franklin. They all came from different time periods and had different ideas about the cause behind the visual displays, but all were uniformly fascinated by the stunning light shows.
4 Galileo Galilei and Pierre Gassendi were the first to name the lights
Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer and philosopher Galileo Galilei was a man of many talents. Over the course of his life he earned countless nicknames, from the father of science to the father of modern physics, and he was a huge force in the science world of the Renaissance. It only seems fitting that he was allegedly the first to name the phenomenon the Aurora Borealis, the name that many of us know it by today. However, others claim that the familiar term was first used by Pierre Gassendi.
3 They’re further away than you think
The aurora borealis is definitely absolutely stunning, but one of the reasons that they have become so popular is because viewers feel like they’re so close the lights are basically within reach. They stretch across the sky and seem like they’re floating right above viewers’ heads. However, this is a bit of an optical illusion – in actuality, the display is generally over 60 miles above earth, on average. In fact, the rarer red lights can occur at over 200 miles above the Earth’s surface – quite a ways for all that light to travel!
2 There are many cultural legends about the lights
As with many scientific phenomena, before there was a concise explanation of the cause (in this case, gas particles colliding to produce various colours), there were legends and myths crafted to explain them. The Maori in New Zealand and many inhabitants of northern Europe and North America believed that the lights were just reflections from torches and campfires. The Menominee Indians in Wisconsin believed that the lights served to indicate the location of giants, who were the spirits of hunters and fisherman. And, the Inuit in Alaska (along with other aboriginal peoples) believed that the lights were the spirits of animals they hunted, or of their people.
1 Earth isn't the only planet that has them
While those of us on earth are huge fans of the aurora borealis and love capturing the beautiful phenomena on film, it’s not something that is exclusive to our planet or atmosphere. Auroras are also known to occur on other planets and are located similarly, towards the magnetic poles of the respective planets. While they’re not a given for every solar body, astronomers have been able to see auroras on everything from Jupiter to Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. That’s a lot of gorgeous auroras!