After a weekend filled with great auroral activity in Northern Canada and Scandinavia (Norway video) thanks to a strong gust of solar wind coming off the Sun Jan.19th, the Earth is about to get hit again -by the biggest blast of solar radiation in 7 years. Talk about a one-two punch on the cosmic scale!
Late last night (Jan.22) at around 11 pm ET a giant, long lasting, solar flare erupted off the face of the Sun, sending a giant Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – cloud of plasma and charged particles – squarely towards the Earth. Detected by NASA’s sun-monitoring satellites SOHO and STEREO, the solar blast was determined to be an M9 on the Richter scale of solar flares – just shy of an X- class flare which is ranked as the most powerful. Space weather forecasters at NOAA – who keep watch for any hazardous, incoming solar storms – are expecting the brunt of the CME to slam into Earth’s magnetic field Jan.24 around 9 am EST ( 2 pm UT) +/- 7 hours.
And Earth is not the only planet in its cross-hairs. Mars will get walloped too when the CME arrives there on Jan.25th.
Already the front of the storm is now being felt as space radiation (energized protons) speeds by Earth, states the Spaceweather.com website. The high influx of charged particles hitting the magnetic field poses a hazard to everything from GPS signals, polar radio communications, power grids and circuit boards on orbiting satellites.
What does this mean for chances of seeing Northern Lights? If the geomagnetic storm becomes moderate to strong then auroras may creep down to southern latitudes like Texas and Georgia -but that’s pretty rare. Exactly how intense and widespread the sky show will be depends on how our planet’s magnetic field is oriented at the time when the storm arrives.
Best time to go outside will be between local midnight and pre-dawn hours. Face the northern sky and look for green or red glows to start near the horizon. Catching auroras with your camera is not hard. All you need to have is a tripod mounted DSLR camera with a wide angle lens, capable of taking exposures of up to 20 seconds with a timer.
As usual there are still too many unknowns to forecast reliably who, where, and when exactly will get a sky show when it comes to aurora, but one thing is for sure – you have to go outside and look up to even have a chance.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.