It’s a spectacular natural phenomenon that puts on a show across the Arctic Circle and occasionally even creeps into the south of Scotland.
But last night – and again in the coming evenings – something even more remarkable will happen.
Aurora borealis is expected to light up the night sky across Britain and extend into southern Kent and Cornwall.
There were also sightings across southern England on Sunday Northern Ireland, South Wales and Norfolk.
It is the result of a strong coronal mass ejection (CME) erupting from the sun’s surface, sending charged particles toward Earth.
These hit our planet on Sunday and interacted with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, ejecting them green and red colors over our poles.
Beautiful: Aurora borealis is expected to light up the night sky across Britain and extend into southern Kent and Cornwall. Stonehenge was illuminated by the Northern Lights last night
When the CME or solar flare is really strong, these charged particles can travel further away from the Arctic and Antarctic circles and reach mid-latitudes, such as southern England.
WHAT ARE CORONAL MASS PROJECTION?
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field emanating from the sun.
These clouds can erupt in any direction and then continue in that direction, plowing through the solar wind.
These clouds only cause impacts on the Earth when they are aimed at the Earth.
They are usually much slower than solar flares because they move a larger amount of matter.
CMEs can be triggered when a storm on the sun’s surface creates a whirlwind at the base of plasma loops protruding from the surface.
These loops are called prominences and when they become unstable they can break, sending the CME into space.
The Met Office’s Space Weather arm said it expected another CME to hit Earth later today, which could reportedly amplify the effects of the current Northern Lights.
“(An)Aurora is possible again to similar latitudes, perhaps as far south as central or southern England if more sustained storm periods occur,” it added.
The only hindrance will be cloud cover.
It is predicted to be cloudy over much of the UK overnight, which could hamper hopes of seeing the aurora.
The best way to see it, according to the British Geological Survey, is to find a dark place, away from street lights and ideally a cloudless sky.
Experts say skywatchers should generally look north, though the spectacular sight could be overhead or elsewhere.
Looking up around midnight gives the best chance of seeing it, they add.
The sun goes through an 11-year solar cycle in which the magnetic field becomes more or less active.
This, in turn, causes a fluctuating amount of activity on the sun’s surface.
Since the last solar minimum was in 2020, this activity has increased since then, meaning our star is currently at its most active since 2014.
It is expected to reach solar maximum in 2025, so more of these aurora displays are expected in the coming months and years.
The Northern Lights are mainly seen in high latitude regions, so any glimpse in the UK is a rare treat for stargazers.
But CMEs caused by intense solar activity could make it possible to see the spectacle much further south.
Sunspots are areas on the surface of the sun where powerful magnetic fields, created by the flow of electrical charges, become confused and eventually release a massive explosion of energy that results in a solar flare.
While our sun gives us life, it also often “sneezes,” ejecting billions of tons of hot plasma into space in colossal blobs of matter interlaced with magnetic fields — in other words, CMEs.
The Met Office’s Space Weather arm said it expected another CME to hit Earth later today, which could reportedly amplify the effects of the current Northern Lights
The Northern Lights seen at South Shields Souter Lighthouse in Tyne and Wear last night
A photo taken over the Hebrides in Scotland showed how the sky painted a wide range of colors as the Northern Lights came to the UK
The Northern Lights sparkled as far south as the Brecon Beacons on Sunday night (pictured)
It emits giant flares, bursts of powerful electromagnetic radiation — X-rays, gamma rays and radio bursts — accompanied by streams of highly energetic particles.
CMEs usually take about 15 to 18 hours to reach Earth.
The aurora appears when atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with energetically charged particles from the sun, creating breathtaking shades of green with hints of pink, red and violet.
It is more commonly seen in winter when nights are cold, long and dark.
When a solar storm heads our way, some of the energy and small particles can travel along the magnetic field lines at the north and south poles to Earth’s atmosphere.
There, the particles interact with gases in our atmosphere, resulting in beautiful light shows in the sky – the aurora or northern lights. Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple.
In the north, the display is known as the aurora borealis, and in the south it is called the aurora australis.
SUNSTORMS ARE A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
Solar stormsor solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have consequences on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made from photons coming directly from the flare site. Solar flares only strike Earth when they occur on the side of the Sun that faces Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field emanating from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction and then continue in that direction, plowing through the solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts on the Earth when they are aimed at the Earth.
- Fast solar wind currents: These come from solar coronal holes, which form all over the sun and usually only when closer to the solar equator do the winds affect the Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles believed to be released primarily by shocks formed at the leading edge of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through the solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced, and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect the Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger from these phenomena due to the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they should be concerned about the cumulative exposure during spacewalks.
This picture shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release gas bubbles or tongues and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have enormous financial costs.
The charged particles could also threaten airlines by disrupting the Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even cause currents in power grids and shut down the energy supply.
When coronal mass ejections hit Earth, they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can interfere with radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy can enter high-voltage grids and permanently damage transformers.
This can shut down businesses and homes around the world.
Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather