Ninety-two million miles above Earth a solar storm is raging. The sun is in all its fiery pomp, producing an eruptive peak of activity that only occurs every 11 years. It’s known as solar maximum, and while it has the potential to cause power and communication problems here on Earth, it’s also a source of great anticipation – there’s been no better time in the last decade to observe the northern lights.
“January always carries a real air of excitement about the stargazing possibilities in the year ahead,” says Brian Cox, who’s part of the Stargazing Live team that’s aiming to bring this celestial spectacular into our living rooms as it happens – at least that’s the ambition.
Cox will again be joined by Dara O Briain and Liz Bonnin, who, just to add to the sense of drama, will be 28,000ft above Earth in a small plane attempting to find and film the lights.
“I think this is probably the first time anyone has been up in a plane to do a live broadcast of an aurora,” says Bonnin, before striking a note of caution. “We are in the best place, at the best time of the year and I would say the odds are stacked with us. But even within 24 hours conditions can completely change, so part of the thrill of all this is whether we can achieve it.”
Scientists will track the arrival of the solar particles that create the aurora’s natural fireworks on the ground in Tromso, Norway. “There are a lot of variables that will determine whether we’ll see it,” says Bonnin. “We will chase it as much as we can. We will know whether it’s heading in the right direction before we go live.”
To minimize artificial light disturbance, the Stargazing team gained permission from the Norwegian air authorities to fly the six-seater plane without any external lights. Cameras will be mounted in the windows of the plane that, crucially, will be flying above the cloud base.
“It’s a unique vantage point and without cloud interference the view should be spectacular,” says Bonnin. “It will stretch out before us in a way you can’t see if you’re observing it from below.”
Bonnin saw the northern lights from the ground in Norway a couple of years ago and says we are in for a treat. “It’s thrilling and very surreal. Your brain can’t really make sense of what you’re seeing. It is literally otherworldly. It’s a very powerful manifestation of interactions between our star and our planet’s atmosphere. It goes beyond just a rare spectacle, so fingers crossed we will see one.”
HOW IT WORKS
– The spectacular light show is the result of electrically charged particles from the Sun colliding, and interacting, with the Earth’s atmosphere.
– “These charged particles are speeding along magnetic lines towards the poles,” explains Liz Bonnin. “When they get above the polar regions they excite the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, which then release the energy they’ve received from the charged particles as light.”
– It’s this process that results in the incredible colours, says Bonnin. “Different gas atoms release their energy in different colours, so oxygen tends to glow green at low altitude and red at higher altitudes, while nitrogen is a purple-blue colour.”
– The phenomenon occurs around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres and is known as aurora borealis in the north and aurora australis in the south.
– If the solar storm is an exceptionally strong one, the lights could be observed as far south as the Midlands in the UK.