For several days, the night sky had been not just the talk of the town -- it was the talk of the world. Aurorae that were brighter than a full Moon painted skies from Montreal to Havana with fiery sheets of red, as though the sky itself were on fire. Streamers of silver and purple danced across the sky like electric sprites, each more dazzling than the one before. The date was August 31st, 1859 -- 150 years ago today.
The intense displays of the northern and southern lights had first appeared a couple of days earlier -- the work of an unruly Sun.
The Sun was near the peak of its 11-year magnetic cycle. Giant sunspots crossed its face -- dark storms where tangled lines of magnetic force poked through the surface. On August 28th, one of the knots snapped. It produced a powerful explosion of energy, and sent a billion-ton cloud of electrically charged particles racing toward Earth.
The particles and energy bombarded Earth's magnetic field, creating brilliant aurorae. In the northern hemisphere, they extended as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. The blast also overloaded telegraph circuits for hours, and gave a few telegraph operators some nasty shocks.
Some skywatchers saw the Technicolor displays as signs of an apocalypse. Others saw them as a natural spectacle -- a great entertainment for a late-summer night.
But the Sun wasn't quite through. An even bigger spectacle was yet to come. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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