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  • Daniella Morrone

What is the Aurora? Answering questions about this astronomical phenomenon!

The weekend of May 10-11, the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, swept the skies of Canada, the United States, and many other places around the world. If you were able to see the show, great! It was one of the best displays of auroras in 20 years! Photos of this gorgeous light show have been circulating the internet in the past few days, and we're here to answer your questions about this phenomenon.

Photo of the purple and green aurora taken on May 10, 2024.
The auroras were a lot brighter and colourful in pictures. To the eye, the display was fainter and colours less obvious. Still, it was an amazing show! Credit: Julie Bolduc-Duval.

What causes the aurora?

Our Sun is a star, which means it's made up of extremely hot gas. When is it very active, it can eject matter into space which can reach Earth. This matter is mostly made up of charged particles (electrons, protons, ions) which are deflected by our magnetic field. They can enter the atmosphere around the polar regions, and they interact with the atoms in our atmosphere. This causes the emission of light of different colours: the aurora!

The lights also appear to move; sometimes slowly and sometimes quite fast. Check out this amazing time-lapse from Canadian astrophotographer Alan Dyer.

What is the difference between auroras and northern lights?

Why were there auroras now? 

Why were we able to see the northern lights so far south in Canada and the US?

Will there be more auroras?

Why are there different colours?

Why were the colours more obvious on a camera?

Below are some photos taken on May 10, 2024 of the aurora.

Credit: Julie Bolduc-Duval

Teaching Opportunity

With such a beautiful astronomical phenomenon gracing our skies the weekend of May 10, it poses another unique teaching and learning opportunity. Below are some activities you can use to discuss the aurora borealis in your classroom and connect it to the Sun and the rest of our Solar System.

  • Investigating the Solar Cycle

    • Since the aurora is dependent on the Sun’s activity, it’s only natural to explore the Solar Cycle when talking about auroras.  Our Solar Cycle activity guide is aimed towards secondary school teachers to help students investigate the solar cycle. Using real satellite images of the Sun, six (6) activities are investigated in this guide, covering topics such as the differences between astronomical observations at multiple wavelengths, terrestrial phenomena related to solar activity, and more.

  • Creating a Scale Model of the Solar System

    • The scale of the distances in the Solar System are something that can be discussed when talking about the aurora. Since the ejected particles from the Sun have to travel all the way to Earth, creating your very own scale model of this would help visualize that distance. Our Solar System interactive activity allows you to create models of the Solar System with your students.

  • Night Sky Observation 

    • The beautiful phenomenon of the aurora on May 10 caused everyone to look up to the sky. And while the aurora isn’t always visible, there is so much more to see up there too! We offer several activities to encourage observing the night sky. 

    • Our Looking Up Activities are designed to help students know what is visible in the night sky and provide a template for documenting their observations.

  • Making your own aurora!

    • Connecting to astronomy through arts and crafts is a great way to engage students. There are so many ways to make your own aurora, but here are some ideas to do this:

      • Use green, pink, and white pastels and/or chalk and smudging the pigment across a sheet of black paper.

      • Take a long exposure photo while moving glow sticks. Here is a guide to taking long exposure photos on a smartphone.


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