Great Red Aurora
In Los Angeles, people feared that fires were scorching the landscape. In Europe, they thought it might mean war. Luckily, though, the bright red glow that decorated northern skies 50 years ago today was a magnetic storm -- a bombardment by the Sun.
The glow is known today as the Great Red Aurora. It first appeared shortly after dark on February 10th, 1958. It grew and faded during the evening, then grew stronger after midnight. The aurora was visible as far south as Georgia and even Florida. And it was back again the following night.
Auroral displays -- also known as the northern lights -- are fairly common. They occur every day as the Sun pelts Earth with electrically charged particles. But most displays are limited to high latitudes, like Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia. And they're usually green -- the result of particles striking atoms of oxygen about 60 miles above the surface.
But the 1958 display was caused by an unusually powerful magnetic storm on the Sun. Its particles hit oxygen atoms at much higher altitudes, causing them to glow red. The storm also caused the northern lights to spread over a much larger area than usual, so the display was visible to many people who'd never seen an aurora before.
We're not likely to see such displays for a while, because the Sun is in a "quiet" phase right now. But it'll get busier in a few years -- providing a better chance of seeing another great auroral display.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007
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