The Northern Lights could be visible over Montana tonight

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MONTANA – A huge geomagnetic storm that has blasted a stream of aurora-producing plasma into Earth’s magnetic field has intensified, meaning the odds are better that Montana will be treated to an ethereal aurora borealis this week.

The Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, updated its geomagnetic storm watch on Tuesday, and now says the aurora borealis can be seen with the naked eye across northern U.S. states and as far south as central Iowa on Thursday.

In Montana, the Northern Lights will likely be most visible Thursday from about 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and slightly less likely thereafter until about 3 a.m. Friday.

Find out what’s happening in Across Montanawith free real-time Patch updates.

Some of the northernmost US states may see auroras again on Friday evening following the coronal mass ejection on the sun. The difference in the aurora forecast is the storm’s upgrade from a G2 (moderate) to G3 (strong) level, which may push the aurora far south.

The storm could have a Kp index – a measure of geomagnetic storm strength – of up to 7 at its peak. Geomagnetic storm watches are usually issued by the Space Weather Prediction Center for Kp5 and stronger storms. As the map below shows, Montana and others above the yellow line could see the Northern Lights this week.

Find out what’s happening in Across Montanawith free real-time Patch updates.

It’s dawn time

If this storm is a bust or you miss the Northern Lights, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are greater than ever right now. The reason: Solar Cycle 25. It’s an 11-year cycle in which the sun’s magnetic fields reverse polarity, causing solar storms 93 million miles from Earth with much more frequency over the next decade.

After solar storms, the auroral oval surrounding the geomagnetic poles dips, explaining why someone in northern Minnesota can see auroras, but they are not visible to someone at the same latitude in northern Minnesota. Washington State.

Monday’s solar flare was an M4 strength event on a scale of M1 to M9. M-class solar flares are the second largest type and are capable of producing brief radio blackouts in the Earth’s polar regions.

During geomagnetic storms, the ovals move away from the poles and provide some lucky people in the United States with an ethereal sky show they will never forget. During particularly strong storms, people in latitudes as low as Pennsylvania, Oregon and Iowa can see the lights.

The science behind the aurora – in the southern hemisphere they are called the aurora australis – is complicated. During solar storms, the sun emits electrically charged ions that travel away in a stream of plasma, an ionized gas, known as “solar wind”. The vivid colors glow as plasma hits Earth’s ionosphere about 60 to 80 miles above the planet’s surface.

As the National Weather Service explains, the lights glow “in the same way that a neon sign glows when electrons pass through an inert gas.”

NASA rockets to explore the aurora borealis

Aurora borealis exposures are favored in cold regions near the poles, but the energy exchange that causes them is a significant source of heat, according to NASA, which plans to blast two rockets through an active aurora to find out more.

Life on our planet exists in the troposphere, Earth’s lowest atmospheric layer, and the air we breathe is made up of neutral, magnetically balanced atoms and molecules with all of their electrons, NASA explained.

“But hundreds of miles above us, our air begins to fundamentally change character,” the space agency said on its website. “Energized by the Sun’s unfiltered rays, electrons are stripped from their atoms, which then take on a positive charge. A once neutral gas transforms into an electrically reactive state of matter called plasma.”

The transformation of plasma into neutral gas takes place in an extended atmospheric boundary layer where the two mix. The winds send the particles flying in different directions, and when they collide, interesting physical results, according to NASA.

“Friction is a great analogy,” said Stephen Kaeppler, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Clemson University in South Carolina and principal investigator of the NASA mission, in a blog post on the website. of the agency.

“We all know that [if] we’re rubbing our hands together, you’re going to get hot,” he said. “It’s the same basic idea, except we’re dealing with gases instead now.”

Friction is a constant in the boundary layer where the neutral atmosphere and plasma meet, but active auroras intensify everything.

“It’s like storming the football field after a college game,” Kaeppler said. “People at the top of the stadium are running towards the pitch, and as you get closer to the pitch, the crowd gets thicker and thicker. That’s how electrons deal with the increasing neutral density of the upper atmosphere. “

The window for launching the rockets in rapid succession from Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska opened last week.

So far, conditions have not been favorable for ion-neutral coupling during the Active Aurora, or INCAA, mission. Scientists hope to find out how or if auroras change the position of the boundary layer where electrically charged and neutral air is located.

This could bring the boundary layer closer to the ground, lift it higher, or even cause it to fold in on itself. Each of the three possibilities could influence how our planet exchanges energy with the space around it.

“All of these factors make it an interesting physics problem to examine,” Kaeppler said.

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