NASA spacecraft have revealed new insights into the forces that cause the northern lights, including giant magnetic "ropes" between Earth and the sun.

Until now, scientists haven’t had adequate tools to study how energy from the sun is captured by Earth’s magnetic field to trigger the awe-inspiring phenomenon.
"What it shows is promise," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles and principal investigator for a new NASA mission to study auroras.

"We’re coming up on a new era in space physics."

The findings were presented at a teleconference today at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Perfect Storm

The latest discoveries began on March 23, when a "substorm" erupted over Alaska and Canada, producing vivid auroras for more than two hours. During such an event, the northern lights’ green and white streaks periodically build in intensity until they blast apart into multicolored, fragmented lights.

A network of ground cameras photographed the display from below while a series of five satellites, collectively called THEMIS, looked on from above.

"The auroras surged westward twice as fast as anyone thought possible, crossing 15 degrees of longitude in less than one minute," Angelopoulos said.

"The storm traversed an entire polar time zone, or 400 miles [640 kilometers], in 60 seconds flat."

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Above, is an artist’s conception of an aurora (red and green stripes) appears over a series of NASA ground stations (blue circles) used to monitor a series of orbiting satellites dubbed THEMIS.

New findings from the THEMIS probes suggests that the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are fueled by magnetic "ropes" linking the sun and Earth.

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