If you’ve always wanted to check out the Northern Lights with your own eyes, the best place to do it is from the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko Sweden. The station is pretty far out from anything else and 200km north of the Arctic Circle, so there isn’t going to any competing lights from the land side of the equation. The light pollution in the area is actually zero, partly in thanks to the mountains in the area that keep the air so clear. The winter nights are long there, so there is plenty of time to get in and enjoy the natural show.
What appears to be the dancing lights of Aurora are caused when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the world’s atmosphere and collide with the gaseous particles that are present. The lights can appear in clouds, ribbons, arcs, rays, and pretty much any other beautiful moving shape you might imagine. The most popular colors that appear are pink and green, but there have been reports of red, yellow, blue, and violet lights as well. The different colors that appear actually have to do with the height of the particle collision, so for example the popular greenish color is appearing about 60 miles above the earth, while the reddish would be closer to 200 miles above the earth.
The auroral borealis displays can be seen in that area because of the magnetic pole. Meanwhile on the opposite end of the earth, the auroral australis can be seen in the south, and the auroral displays are thought to actually mirror each other which is a pretty mind blowing fact.
Other planets have auroras as well, and they can even be seen from space. Satellites can take photographs of the auroras from the earth’s orbit, and they show up really brightly. the earth’s space station in orbit actually runs into the lights pretty frequently but it generally isn’t noticed since the particle density of the collisions are so low. During solar storms however the radiation gets higher and in that case the astronauts take take to move to the more protected areas of the space station for the time being. In some cases the radiation can actually be lower around the space station during the electrical storms due to how the charged particles hit the earth’s magnetic field.
In certain areas the auroral displays can be seen most of the time, but their visibility peaks every 11 years. The last peak period was in 2013, so there is plenty of time to start a planning a trip to hit the next one. In the 1800’s there were a few instances when the lights were incredibly bright even from the Boston area, but back then there was less light pollution in general so that experience might have been a pretty different one if it happened so far south again today. Although in 2011 some of the aurora was even visible from Oklahoma. Since anywhere high in the Northern hemisphere is good for catching the lights, you can also look for them from Canada if the trip to Sweden is a little far off.