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Geomagnetic storm may bring northern lights to you

September 26, 2011 |  5:25 pm

Auroras_utah 

A geomagnetic storm is raging in Earth's atmosphere. If you're lucky, you just might be able to see the results over the next few days.

On Monday, NASA reported that a strong to severe geomagnetic storm is in progress after large solar flares over the weekend spewed a cloud of charged particles toward Earth.

Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration, put it this way in an interview with The Times: "The Earth's magnetic field is pretty disturbed."

A solar flare is an explosion in the sun's atmosphere that sends out a burst of radiation. Sometimes that radiation is not directed toward Earth, and sometimes, like over the weekend, it is. If that burst hits Earth's own magnetic field, strange things start to happen.

"When these charged particles go by our own magnetic field, it's like dumping gasoline on a fire," said Kunches. "Everything gets a lot hotter."

He said we are officially entering the beginning of solar flare season -- a rotation that lasts about 11 years.

Geomagnetic storms come with positives and negatives. One major plus for sky watchers: They can cause auroras to be brighter and closer to the equator, so that more people see them.

If you live in the northern part of the United States and away from city lights, you might be able to see the auroras -- commonly called northern lights, in northern latitudes at least -- as far south as Colorado.

Kunches adds that the moon will help tonight -- it's not too bright, so the lights will be more obvious.

On the downside, geomagnetic storms can interfere with orbiting, human-made objects that we depend on -- satellites that allow us to use our cellphones and access our GPS devices, for example.

Kunches said it's possible that GPS systems may be affected over the next 24 hours.

So if you can't get directions to the nearest Starbucks on your cellphone, now you know why.

But look up, watch the light drip down like rain, and you'll find that Starbucks can probably wait.

RELATED:

Solar flare season is heating up

NASA tries to pinpoint UARS landing site

NASA: 'We may never know' location of satellite debris

-- Deborah Netburn

Image: Scott Lowther took this image of lower-alititude auroras during a major geomagnetic storm in  Thatcher, Utah, on Aug. 6. Image: Courtesy of Scott Lowther

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