Aurora May Drop By Your New Year’s Eve Party

This photo, taken in several "flavors" of UV light, shows the long, slow flare from sunspot region 2734 that began this morning around 6:30 a.m. CST. Credit: NASA/SDO
This photo, taken in several “flavors” of UV light, shows the long, slow flare from sunspot region 2734 that began this morning around 6:30 a.m. CST. The blast sent material Earth’s way that may spark auroras on Thursday night, New Year’s Eve. Credit: NASA/SDO

Big sunspot group 2473 cut loose a long-lasting M-class flare earlier today. The explosion produced a fast-moving bubble of plasma directed toward Earth. Plasma, a hot mix of negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged ions (atoms that have lost an electron) may look like a gas but it behaves differently enough to be considered its own state of matter, alongside the familiar solid, liquid and gas.

Lightning is a familiar, everyday example of a plasma. The temperature of a lightning stroke is nearly the same as the surface of the sun - about 10,000 F
Lightning is an everyday example of a plasma. The temperature of a lightning stroke is nearly the same as the surface of the sun – about 10,000°F. Credit: Edward Aspera Jr. / U.S. Air Force

Unlike neutral gases, like the air we breathe, a plasma is made of electrically-charged particles that respond to electric currents and magnetic fields, fields identical to ones that make a magnet stick to your refrigerator. Plasma can also interact with itself to produce local concentrations of magnetism and electricity, but overall a cloud of plasma has no “charge”. It’s neutral.

Solar plasma is made of busted up hydrogen atoms. In a happy, neutral hydrogen atom, an electron orbits a single proton in the nucleus. But in the fiercely hot and energized environment of the sun, the atoms are torn apart into individual protons and electrons or plasma.

Glowing plasma in a neon light. Another familiar example of the 4th state of matter. Credit: Pslawinski / Wikipedia
Glowing plasma in a neon light. Another familiar example of the 4th state of matter. Credit: Pslawinski / Wikipedia

When a CME arrives at Earth, as this one is forecast to sometime on New Year’s Eve, there’s a fair chance it will make electrical and magnetic connections with our planet’s own magnetic field. Particles within the plasma can then be accelerated down the Earth’s field lines, which resemble Einstein’s hair, and into the polar regions. High in atmosphere, anywhere from about 60 to 300 miles up, the fast-moving particles strike oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules, pumping up their energies. When the atoms and molecules “settle back down” they release that energy as spitballs of red, green and blue colored light called photons.

Can you guess how much of the observable universe is plasma vs. solid, liquid and gas? How about 99%! That may surprise you, but look up at the sky the next clear night. All those stars you see and all the gas snaking between the stars you don’t see — plasma. Every time you feel the sunshine on your face, you can thank the 4th state of matter.

Big sunspot group 2374 may deliver up a New Year's night aurora. Credit: NASA / SDO
Big sunspot group 2374 may deliver up a New Year’s night aurora. Credit: NASA / SDO

But back to our big sunspot group. It’s a complicated magnetic mess, so more flares are expected. There’s also a large coronal hole kicking out some high speed plasma of its own. No moon will mar the sky later this week, so keep watch for northern lights. I’ll update if things look good.

11 Responses

  1. “Lets Go Get Plasmered” would possibly be the only time it will be the correct thing to say as we head out to celebrate… unless if it’s to a law enforcement officer 😉

    1. astrobob

      Hi Les,
      Not to Earth directly, no. But powerful solar storms can damage some satellite electronics or poorly protected power transformers on the ground. This one is not expected to be that type of storm.

      1. Ben

        I actually have 2 more questions. You often say there’s gonna be a Gn (n=1 or 2 usually) magnetic storm. Is there anywhere I can find out how far south the levels of G-nius take the aurora? Also,do you know any good 14th and down mag quasars to see (other than 3C 273)? Thank for the quick response AND the great blog!

  2. Olivia K

    I love learning new things about auroras! It really surprised me to know that 99% of our observable universe is plasma. This has me thinking the next time I look up at the sky more differently.

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