Aurora fans could get big show thanks to huge, surly sunspot

The "northern lights" could stretch farther south than normal thanks to an unsettled sunspot wider than the Earth itself.

Eric Mack
Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
2 min read

Astronaut Jack Fischer looked out at Earth in July 2017 and caught sight of this glowing green aurora. He posted the image to Twitter, saying it "slathers up the sky in awesome sauce."

NASA/Jack Fischer

On Wednesday evening, the "northern lights" will no longer be just for those in the far north. Lucky sky-watchers as far south as Ohio and Indiana may be able to see the aurora borealis.

Somewhat less surprisingly, the odds of viewing the dancing lights are also good for Scotland and Scandinavia and the aurora australis could also be in full effect Down Under. But the aurora's dip down to the contiguous US is a more rare occurrence, and we have a huge outburst from a particularly large, surly sunspot to thank. 

Sunspot AR2673 is wide enough to swallow Earth a few times over, according to Spaceweather.com, and it's been rather unsettled this week. The spot unleashed a medium-strength solar flare Monday accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is an explosion of slower-moving material called plasma that can create so-called geomagnetic storms when it collides with Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the colorful, dancing lights of the aurora. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, the CME is set to arrive Wednesday evening, with its effects (including the light show) continuing into Friday. There's potential for visible auroras above the yellow line in the map below:

Enlarge Image

The yellow line indicates how far south the aurora borealis may be visible. 


For a short-term forecast, you can check NOAA's 30-minute aurora outlook here. If you're south of the line, or there are clouds in the forecast for your Wednesday night, you might have another chance to catch the show soon. 

On Wednesday morning, the same sunspot let off a solar flare that appears to be the strongest such eruption in more than a decade. The major X9.3 class flare was followed by another X2.2 flare a little later.

"Radio emissions suggest a coronal mass ejection (CME) may be associated with the X9.3 flare, but we await SOHO/LASCO coronagraph imagery for confirmation," reads the latest update from NOAA.

So check out the show Wednesday and Thursday if you'e able, but stay tuned, as it's possible the northern lights' encore over the weekend could be even bigger and better.

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