Northern Lights set to take stage in South Dakota sky

RAPID CITY, S.D. — When most people think of the Northern Lights, they think of northern places. Tomorrow morning and evening though, we’ll have a chance to see the aurora borealis here in South Dakota. Here’s the science behind the show!

Northern lights visible in South DakotaDeep inside the earth, there’s a core made of liquid iron. As the core solidifies and the iron moves around, a magnetic field is generated that reaches all the way up through the earth’s atmosphere.

The aurora really begins on the surface of the sun though, where there are storms, just like on Earth. These solar storms can send massive gusts of charged particles into space.

Earth sometimes ends up in the direct path of the gust, and the particles will collide with Earth’s atmosphere after a two to three day journey. When these bits of energy hit the magnetic field surrounding the earth, currents of charged particles begin to flow along the lines of the magnetic field.

Then, as the particles strike nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the atmosphere, these atoms reach an excited state. Electrons bounce around the nucleus of the atom, releasing energy in the form of a photon, or a packet of light. This is similar to what you see in a neon light, but in that case, electricity is what’s exciting the electrons.

Local experts predict that this is a one in ten or maybe even 15 year event. It’s classified by the Space Weather Prediction Center as a G3 storm, which can cause voltage irregularities and orientation problems with GPS and satellites. Scientists actually turn or close sensitive parts of satellites to protect the equipment during these solar storms.

The aurora is far too high in the atmosphere to fly through in a plane, but it would not be a good idea to launch a rocket through the electromagnetic storm!

Although this event should last all day Saturday, the best time to see this magnificent display of space and nature will be early Saturday morning, or in the evening. But, we’re expecting some clouds to be moving in during the day, so early Saturday will be your best bet. The further east you can go the better!

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