The northern lights might put on a serious show tonight

Right now, the Earth is being slammed by fast-particles shot out by the sun, and that means tonight the northern lights could put on quite a show for people as far south as New York and Iowa.

Assuming the storm keeps up, the solar wind could supercharge the aurora borealis, pushing the oval — which denotes where people can see the cosmic lights — farther south than usual.

Usually, the northern lights stay pretty close to the poles, but during a solar storm — also known as a geomagnetic storm — the lights can be visible in lower latitudes due to the way the storm perturbs Earth’s magnetic field. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center is forecasting a moderate geomagnetic storm Tuesday night, meaning that the northern lights are expected to dip down into the Midwest and Northeast. If the storm reaches “strong” levels, that could stretch the auroral oval as far south as Illinois and Oregon.

If you want to see the auroras for yourself, get someplace dark and cloud-free. If it’s cold, bundle up and then hunker down for what could be a long wait. 

The aurora borealis shine intermittently during geomagnetic storms depending on how many solar particles are buffeting our planet at any given moment. (You can use Twitter feeds like @Aurora_Alerts to find out when the solar storm is peaking.)

You can also check out the auroras visible on this northern lights webcam from Sweden, if you don’t have the best weather for an aurora viewing.

The northern and southern lights are actually created when charged particles from the sun smash into Earth’s magnetic field. Those particles are drawn down to the planet’s north and south poles along magnetic field lines. Some of the solar particles make it past the planet’s magnetic field, slamming into Earth’s upper atmosphere and interacting with neutrally charged particles like oxygen and nitrogen.

That interaction causes the particles to glow, shining in greens, reds and purples, depending on what kind of molecules are emitting the photons. 

While Tuesday’s solar storm probably won’t do much more than produce some northern lights and maybe over-charge a satellite or two, geomagnetic storms can be incredibly powerful and even dangerous.

In 1989, the province of Quebec, Canada, went completely dark when a strong solar storm knocked out power to the entire region after a burst of hot plasma from the sun reached the planet, burning out the power grid in Quebec and causing a 12-hour blackout.

Satellites are also vulnerable to solar storms, with spacecraft experiencing increased drag and possible power systems problems.

from Mashable!