Bob Martinson/AP
The northern lights hover over the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska.

Researchers Say Tornadoes in Space Spawn Northern Lights

April 27, 2009 03:30 PM
by Emily Coakley
Though the northern lights have been observed throughout most of recorded history, the cause of the phenomenon has been a mystery, until now.

Electrical Storm Above Causes Lights Below

According to the Times of London, researchers have discovered that the northern lights "are powered by giant electrical tornadoes spinning at more than a million miles an hour and stretching thousands of miles into space."

"What we see as beautiful lights and colours are actually the product of a violent electrical storm in space," said Andreas Keiling, a University of California at Berkeley physicist, in an interview with the newspaper.

Five satellites helped the research team examine the earth’s magnetic field, which traps particles from the sun. Those particles move from the side of the planet where the sun is shining, called the day side, to the part of the earth that is dark, called the night side. There the particles sit together in huge clouds.

"When the charge contained in the cloud becomes too great, it becomes unstable and generates the whirlwinds whose tips hurtle earthwards," the Times explained.
While this particular mystery surrounding the northern lights may be figured out, there is still plenty to investigate. In November, ScienceDaily reported on plans to launch a rocket through the northern lights to investigate radio interference. When the northern lights are particularly active, ScienceDaily explains, airplanes flying polar routes can lose radio communication "for several hours."

The rocket was going to be launched in late November or early December from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is in total darkness for four months a year. Svalbard is also the place where the Kjell Henriksen Observatory opened in May. The new observatory is studying the northern lights.

Background: Tornadoes in space

In 2006, researchers announced that a NASA telescope called Spitzer had found a spiral of high-energy particles coming from a star. The stream of particles was a phenomenon well known to astronomers called Herbig-Haro objects.

The objects take shape "when highly energized particles—usually electrons and protons—are ejected from a young star and collide with nearby clouds of interstellar dust and gas," according to

Particle streams, though, aren't usually spirals. One of the theories, reported, is "magnetic fields in the region are somehow twisting the particle jets."

Some astronomers suggested that the shockwaves created by the jet of particles moving through the clouds "are creating eddies in the dust clouds which then glow and become visible."

The sun also has tornadoes, the European Space Agency announced in 1998. The tornadoes were observed by SOHO, a spacecraft studying the sun.

"They occur most frequently near the north and south poles of the Sun and are almost as wide as the Earth," the agency said in a news release. SOHO’s mission includes learning more about how the sun produces wind.

"Gusts and shocks in the solar wind buffet the Earth’s environment, causing auroras and magnetic storms and endangering satellites and power supplies," the release said.

It’s possible the solar tornadoes "may contribute to the solar wind, especially to a fast windstream that emanates from relatively cool parts of the solar atmosphere called coronal holes."

Reference: Astronomy


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