Solar eruptions give stargazers an ethereal show

Views of Northern Lights elicit `gasps,' `wows galore'

November 01, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The evening skies blushed red and pink over Maryland this week, thrilling sky-watchers with an unusual display of Northern Lights south of the Mason-Dixon Line

The vivid light shows on Wednesday and Thursday evenings were triggered by powerful solar eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, blasted toward the Earth earlier in the week.

"There were gasps and wows galore," said Jerry Persall, president of the Howard Astronomical League, who watched Thursday's events with a half-dozen HAL members at Carrs Mill Park near Lisbon.

"It went on for about 45 minutes or so, with continuous displays of brilliant reds and scintillating greens, lots of shape-shifting and column formations," he said. "It was ethereal."

Sten F. Odenwald, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center who cooordinates an aurora-observing program with middle and high schools in Alaska, Maine and Maryland, watched through the trees in Kensington, Montgomery County.

"I could definitely see the aurora was reddish and pink, and apparently had some streamers and details moving from west to east through the glow," he said. "This was dazzling. It was only the second time in my life I've seen an aurora."

The sun has been quieter in recent days, he said. But he planned to keep watching for more auroras. "It can take several days for the [Earth's] magnetosphere to settle down once it gets spanked like this. That can lead to some minor auroral events."

Common in northern latitudes, the Northern Lights can occasionally be seen as far south as Texas and Florida after big solar events.

Photographers snapped Thursday's display as far south as the Carolinas. Marylanders first noted it about 6 p.m., as it waxed and waned across a clear, starry sky for more than 90 minutes before the most intense colors disappeared.

Tim Milligan watched from Pasadena and shared his reactions via e-mail with fellow members of the Delmarva Stargazers, a group of amateur astronomers. "The northeast sky is BRIGHT pink with some white/pink spikes," he wrote. "I have a lot of light pollution around me, and it is STILL bright."

Steve Long and David Wells watched from Tuckahoe State Park, a particularly dark spot on the Eastern Shore. "I actually saw what appeared to be curtains, those auroral forms we always see in the photos from Alaska," Long wrote.

This week's auroras were triggered when high-energy protons from the sun collided with nitrogen atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. When protons arrive, they smack into the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, causing nitrogen atoms 300 to 600 miles above the surface to emit a diffuse red glow. Where the protons reach oxygen atoms at lower altitudes, the display is green, with more apparent structure and detail.

These protons were hurled from the sun on Tuesday and Wednesday by two of the most powerful solar flares ever recorded. The solar debris and magnetic turbulence swept past the Earth on Wednesday and Thursday. They created disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, long-distance power transmissions and radio communications, and triggered vivid auroral displays.

Satellite images showed the most intense activity Thursday evening formed an oval around the north magnetic pole that reached as far south as upstate New York and northwest Pennsylvania. But the collisions were so high that the resulting color emissions were visible from Maryland.

David Wells, watching from Tuckahoe, called it "simply breathtaking."

"The entire northeast sky turned a brilliant red," he said. "To the northwest, pillars of white light were dancing in the sky ... All I could do was sit down in my chair, watch it, and say, `Thank you God!"

For aurora photos on the Web, visit www.spaceweather .com

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