A storm in space offers Iowans another chance to catch a free light show tonight. Iowa astronomer Jim Bonser says it began as bad weather on the face of the sun. There’s a very large, very active sunspot on a part of the sun’s surface that has rotated around to face in our direction. Its major explosions have flung bits of solar material up into space, and those particles from the sun arrive at the outer atmosphere of the earth and glow, creating what we call the Northern Lights. At night, after it gets dark, you’ll see a glow to the north. It’s usually better after midnight but he’s seen beautiful displays as early as nine o’clock especially in the autumn. It’s sometimes bright for ten minutes, then fades away…and might come back an hourlater or not at all. He recommends you “just keep checkin’ out the windows.” A lucky or patient viewer might be able to snap the heavenly special effects. Put your camera on a tripod, he advises, use a “fast” film rated 400 to 1600, and take a long exposure, from 30 to 60 seconds. The wavering and sometimes colorful lights in the northern sky are usually the only effect from such solar storms, though Bonser says there can be more serious results.It can create a lot of problems for the electrical grid, especially in far northern parts of Canada. “There’s quite a bit of electricity flowing through the air,” he says, “and it can overload circuit breakers and some of the things on the power plants.” You might have problems with cellphone traffic, he adds. The upper reaches of the atmosphere do get saturated with these particles, long-distance radio communications get “blacked out,” and you might and you might find problems with some cellphone towers if they get “swamped” by the charged particles. Bonser says you don’t need a telescope to catch aurora borealis. Whether it continues for more nights will depend on whether there are more flares on the sun, and astronomers are watching to see if that’ll happen.
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