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Auroras and the mysterious Sun-Earth connection

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Can you possibly imagine what it would have been like, thousands of years ago, to gaze up into a completely dark and calm winter sky and see the Northern Lights? Just think about how awe-inspiring, perhaps frightening, those moments must have felt to our ancestors; to look up into a night sky ablaze with swirling, changing, multi-colored apparitions of light. I don't personally know any specific myths or stories relating to the northern lights, but there must have been loads of them. How could there not be? I've only seen the Northern Lights once, on a plane to Germany as a five-year old child. I can still remember pressing my face up against the small window to stare at giant, luminous green pillows that floated in the air above the North Pole.

Of course, in this day and age we have some good solid scientific explanations for how and why the Northern and Southern lights (which we call auroras) occur. We know they're caused by charged particles from our Sun spiraling in along the Earth's magnetic field and smashing molecules far up in our atmosphere, making them glow. That much is pretty well understood.

But there's still a substantial amount of mystery to the auroras. No scientist has yet been able to accurately predict when and where an aurora will occur, or explain how, exactly, the Sun's particle get channeled up to the Earth's poles in the first place. And at the heart of this is a very basic and vital relationship that we are only beginning to explore: the true connection between the Sun and the Earth.

The Sun, at it's simplest, is a giant hydrogen bomb that has managed to keep exploding for five billions years (and should continue for another five billion), held together by the force of gravity. The mechanics and behavior of such a beast are far from simple. Inside the Sun are unimaginably vast, seething convection currents of ionized gas, and a mysteriously-generated magnetic field that twists and wraps around the internal layers of the Sun.


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