Aurora Borealis lights up the Lower Mainland

The natural light phenomenon captivates residents

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The Northern Lights are illuminated in the sky above a residential neighbourhood in shades of green, blue, and purple
PHOTO: Shirlyn Zobayed / The Peak

By: Yashita Dhillon, News Writer

A solar storm hit BC on May 10, which allowed for a display of aurora borealis in the sky. The Peak spoke with Matthew Cimone, head interpreter at the HR MacMillan Space Centre and member of the Space Science Outreach team at SFU’s Trottier Observatory, and Martin Curic, president of the SFU Astronomy Club.

“The sun is a gigantic flaming ball of fusion, and essentially, there are so many magnetic forces going on, that these charged particles cause an emission of plasma right within the earth’s atmosphere. And it’s essentially just magnetic forces hitting our atmosphere and causing it to emit light,” Curic explained. Different colours, such as blue and green and purple most commonly seen in the northern lights, are caused by a mix of atmospheric gasses like oxygen, hydrogen, and helium. 

These storms happen when the sun releases large amounts of energy in the form of solar flares and massive eruptions from its outer layer. These events send streams of particles and magnetic fields towards Earth.

“It’s because of this heightened level of solar activity on the sun right now that we’re getting these big flares, these big storms on the sun,” Cimone said. “When we were able to look up and see all of that glow in the sky, we’re seeing those oxygen and nitrogen molecules being excited by the solar particles.” 

That’s what life is. Life’s amazing, just being aware that we’re a part of a grand universe.” Matthew Cimone, head interpreter, MacMillan Space Centre

The Northern Lights are typically visible in more northern regions like the Yukon Territory and Alaska. “Aurora is usually going on all the time, it’s just that usually we can’t see it from our part of the world,” Cimone noted. 

“The magnetic particles caused the atmospheric atoms to emit light, which showed up as auroras in beautiful colors to us.” Curic said there hasn’t been such a strong solar storm since 2003, noting reports as far south as Florida.

Solar storms can have various impacts on Earth, from creating auroras to “disrupting communications.  For Cimone and his colleagues, the event was an opportunity to engage with the public. “There’s some incredible photos that were taken not only by our staff, but also guests that were there that night,” he said. “It’s not every day that the whole world is united together in one event that affects the entire planet.

“There’s planets circling all of those stars up there, and we want to find out what’s maybe going on on some of those stars. Maybe someone’s looking back on one of those stars at our star in their sky, wondering if they’re alive here on our own planet,” Cimone said. “We know more and more about that universe all the time. And the reason why we want to, at least one of the reasons, is so that we can understand more about ourselves, our own planet, how life came to be.” 

The Trottier observatory at SFU Burnaby is part of an outreach program, providing education on our universe for students of astronomy, young learners, and the public. The Astronomy Club at SFU is a place for astronomy students and beginners to gather and learn.

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