Science Daily: Scientists Look Beyond Earth To Understand Auroras.
Deep within the Sun, 93 million miles away, roiling plasma rises and bursts through the solar atmosphere, sometimes thrusting highly charged protons and electrons our way. When this so-called solar wind arrives near Earth, it energizes protons and electrons trapped in the planet’s magnetic field.
These charged particles then travel down magnetic field lines, like beads slipping along a string, into Earth’s upper atmosphere near the poles. There the particles in turn excite atoms and molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other atmospheric gases. As these atoms relax back down into their normal state, they release the excess energy as visible light, forming an aurora oval loosely centered on the magnetic pole.
During an aurora, vivid arcs, curls, waves and bands of green, red, and sometimes blue dance across the sky for minutes or hours, peaking near midnight — all between 60 and 600 miles above the ground.
Many people think auroras are rare events, but there’s almost always an aurora of some size in the sky near the poles. Seeing one is another matter.
Auroras are most often visible in regions bordering the Arctic Circle: Canada, Alaska, northern Greenland, the Scandinavian coast, and Siberia. In the south, you need to be visiting Antarctica to see an aurora frequently. But the larger the solar storm reaching Earth’s upper atmosphere, the farther the aurora extends from the poles. Residents of New England or southern Chile might see an aurora every few years. If you live in Florida or Italy, you’d be lucky to see an aurora once in your lifetime.