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Just in Time for Olympic Lighting, Sun Lights Up the Skies
August 13, 2004

[image-78]On Friday, the Olympic flame in Athens will be lit after a global torch relay covering 27 countries and traveling a distance of about 48,000 miles (78,000 km) total. Particles from the Sun had to travel a little further - 93 million miles - to light up the skies in states like Iowa, Michigan, California, and New York. The bright auroras were the result of elevated activity on the Sun and some unusually large sunspots rotating toward Earth.

The coronal mass ejection (CME) blast that triggered the aurora took place around 10:45 am ET on July 25, traveling at roughly 1300 km per second. It took a day and a half to reach Earth, allowing NOAA to issue warnings to satellite and power grid operators. At 20 times the size of Earth, the originating sunspot was the largest seen since the fall solar storm onslaught.

[image-51]The region generated several medium-sized coronal mass ejections, massive explosions with a potential force of a billion one-megaton bombs. In this case, the CMEs were probably intensified by the sunspot's proximity to 'coronal holes', voids in the solar atmosphere from which material rapidly flows away from the Sun, causing high-speed streams in the solar wind. That combined with the CME could have been enough to make this mid-sized storm more severe than it would have been.

The aurora, also known as the Northern and Southern Lights, form when solar particles and magnetic fields pump energy into the Earth's magnetic field, accelerating electrically charged particles trapped within. The high-speed particles crash into Earth's upper atmosphere (ionosphere) over the polar regions, causing the atmosphere to emit a ghostly, multicolored glow.

More Information:

Exploratorium's Aurora Site
Sun-Earth Viewer
Previous Aurora Feature

Rachel A. Weintraub
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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Identical auroras over north and south poles
The Polar spacecraft saw both the aurora borealis and aurora australis (northern and southern lights) expanding and brightening in parallel at midnight ET, July 27, 2004.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Polar/University of Iowa
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Aurora over the south pole as seen by NASA's IMAGE.
Flying over the south pole, the IMAGE spacecraft caught these views around 7 pm ET on July 26, 2004.
Image Credit: 
NASA / IMAGE / UC Berkeley
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Page Last Updated: April 13th, 2015
Page Editor: NASA Administrator