Electrons bouncing across Earth's magnetic field cause Northern Lights, say scientists

Scientists have Figured Out What Causes Northern Lights

Credit NASA

The colorful Northern lights consist of a great amalgamation of Green, purple and red lights blazing across the night skies. This dazzling light show was admired by humans since the beginning of time, but scientists still haven't been able to fully confirm theories about its formation - until now. Folks have been peering up at these awe-inspiring auroras for thousands of years, but until now the inner workings of these sub-atomic showers have been subject to some (very) educated guesswork.

"Auroral substorms are caused by global reconfiguration in the magnetosphere, which releases stored solar wind energy", writes Satoshi Kasahara, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo in Japan, the lead author of the paper. The leading hypothesis on this tells us that it is a type of plasma known as a chorus wave that drives this scattering of electrons. This scattering causes electrons to rain down into the upper atmosphere, thereby stabilizing the system and producing colorful auroras.

"They are characterized by auroral brightening from dusk to midnight, followed by violent motions of distinct auroral arcs that eventually break up, and emerge as diffuse, pulsating auroral patches at dawn". Although the northern lights are widely popular, the scientists were yet to find the actual reason why this fantastic show of colliding plasma and electrons in a wave.

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The scattered electrons precipitate into the atmosphere resulting in auroral illumination. Image credits: The 2018 ERG science team.

Scientists have long believed that pulsating auroras are created due to interaction of electrons (in the magnetosphere) and chorus waves (the natural oscillations in the Earth's outer magnetosphere). Now, researchers have finally caught them in the act. "The precipitating electron flux was sufficiently intense to generate pulsating aurora", Kasahara informed.

"We, for the first time, directly observed scattering of electrons by chorus waves generating particle precipitation into the Earth's atmosphere", Kasahara said.

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The specialised sensor was aboard the Exploration of energisation and Radiation in Geospace (ERG) satellite, also known as the Arase spacecraft, launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The new tool has now enabled scientists to observe the interactions of the auroral electrons in new detail, as driven by the chorus waves.

A full understanding of all the physical processes involved in the creation of different types of auroras is still incomplete, but the pieces are starting to fall into place. Scientists can now build on this new evidence by using other hardware aboard the ERG satellite to continue uncovering the secrets of the Northern Lights.

Journal Reference: S. Kasahara at al. These lights can take different forms, but the most unbelievable are the "pulsating auroras" that present themselves as flickering displays across the dark sky at dawn.

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