Aurora to illuminate night sky over northern U.S.

By Brian Lada,
Green and red hues of an aurora are visible from the International Space Station in January 2016. File Photo by Scott Kelly/NASA
Green and red hues of an aurora are visible from the International Space Station in January 2016. File Photo by Scott Kelly/NASA

The weekend will kick off with a rare celestial show as the northern lights illuminate the night sky over the northern United States.

Over the past few days, the sun has launched massive clouds of charged particles toward the Earth, events known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). When these hit Earth's magnetic field, they will ignite the aurora borealis over the Northern Hemisphere and the aurora australis over the Southern Hemisphere.


In North America, CMEs usually spark the aurora over Canada, but the recent CMEs were much larger than usual, making it possible to see the celestial lights dance over the northern part of the United States.

The aurora may be visible to the naked eye as far south as Virginia, Missouri, Colorado and Northern California on Friday night into early Saturday morning, as this is when the CMEs are predicted to arrive at Earth, according to NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

The anticipated light show is predicted to be as strong as the aurora outbursts last spring when the northern lights were seen as far south as North Carolina and Oklahoma.

The best viewing conditions are expected across the northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest, where mainly cloud-free conditions will lead to great views of the night sky.


Clouds will be a bigger issue for folks across the Northeast and part of the Midwest, although there could be a pocket around the Ohio Valley where breaks in the clouds will allow some views of the aurora.

To see the aurora, people must travel to an area with very little light pollution and look toward the north. It may appear as a green or red glow above the horizon.

Photographers who are farther south may not be able to see the aurora with their eyes but could still capture the phenomenon with long-exposure photography.

The sun has been busy this week launching multiple CMEs toward Earth, meaning the aurora could glow again on Saturday night over the northern United States if the conditions are right.

Typically, these events would also trigger dazzling displays of swirling colors over much of Canada and Alaska, but there is a catch: daylight.

With the June solstice just weeks away, nights are extremely short or nonexistent across most of northern Canada and Alaska. The sun still sets every day in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, but it doesn't dip far below the horizon, meaning it never becomes fully dark at night.

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