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While I was at Comic Con - these things always seem to happen when I can't get to the blog! - the huge sunspot cluster AR 1520 let loose with a powerful X1.4 class flare [Note: I originally had this as an X4 flare]. This magnetic blast released a huge wave of subatomic particles which screamed across space and slammed into the Earth's magnetic field on Sunday night. These particles were then fed down into our atmosphere at high speed where they pinged at electrons in nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere. The molecules responded by glowing at very specific blue and red wavelengths, which to our eyes makes pink and purple. The result: gorgeous, gorgeous aurorae... like those seen by photographer Brad Goldpaint over Sparks Lake, Oregon:
Oh, my. That's simply breathtaking. [Click to recombinate.]
X-class storms can damage satellites and cause some mischief on Earth like radio blackouts and power outages. Even if they were truly huge, though, they don't do anything to us directly on the surface; our air protects us. And it does more than that: it puts on the greatest show on - and above - the Earth.
I've written a thorough (and hopefully easy-to-understand) explanation of aurorae, and why they glow in these amazing and soul-stirring colors. I highly recommend you read it . Aurorae are a feast for the eyes and the brain as well; when you understand what makes them tick, your appreciation of them unfolds in an entirely new dimension.
Image credit: Brad Goldpaint, used with permission.