The northern lights are an atmospheric phenomenon that is regarded as the Holy Grail of sky watching. Named for the Roman goddess of the dawn, the aurora is a captivating display of light in the night sky. The dancing lights grace both the north and south poles, referred to as the aurora borealis and aurora australis, respectively, and NASA scientists are investigating how this natural wonder impacts the Earth’s atmosphere.

A new NASA mission has recently sent two rockets through an active aurora to study how the aurora borealis impacts the energy exchange in Earth’s atmosphere up close.

Northern lights dance above the tundra in Churchill, Manitoba.

Earth’s Atmosphere: A Multi-Layered Cake

The Earth’s atmosphere has five distinct layers. When the sun’s rays reach the Earth’s atmosphere, they interact with gases that trap heat in our atmosphere, and they provide energy for plants and, therefore, the rest of life on Earth. In the troposphere (the atmospheric level we interact with) the constant mixing of hot and cold air is responsible for our weather and cloud formations.

Most of the air in the troposphere is consists of neutralized oxygen and nitrogen molecules—meaning that the air we breathe is magnetically balanced, the atoms and molecules having all of their electrons accounted for. When the unfiltered, energized rays of the sun reach the Earth’s upper atmosphere, they excite the electrons—prying them from their atoms. These now positively charged atoms are in an electrically reactive state known as plasma.

There is no hard cutoff where neutral gas ends and plasma begins. Instead, there is an extended boundary layer where the two populations intermix. This boundary layer, where neutral atmosphere and plasma meet, experiences constant friction. But active auroras turn everything up a notch.

The Earth’s atmosphere is the site of millions of chemical interactions like this on a daily basis. These reactions are also responsible for the breathtaking lights that illuminate the polar landscapes of both the northern and southern hemispheres. Auroras are formed when electrons fall suddenly from near-Earth space and collide with neutral particles, setting them alight. Near-Earth space (NES) is the global environment surrounding the biosphere of our planet. Plunging through the crowded atmosphere, these electrons collide with neutral atoms, generating friction and heat within the aurora. When we see the glowing aurora, we are watching a billion individual collisions, lighting up the magnetic field lines of Earth.

Despite being observed in some of the coldest regions of Earth, the aurora phenomenon is actually a considerable source of heat, and NASA scientists have launched two rockets into the aurora borealis to explore how the aurora influences how neutral gases and plasma interact and how much energy is ultimately released into our upper atmosphere.

Northern lights, pine trees, aurora, Arctic, Churchill

NASA Rocket Exploring the Sun-Earth Connection

This NASA mission has flown through an active aurora to study this energy exchange process up close. The launch window for Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora, or INCAA mission, opened at the Poker Flat Research Range in Poker Flat, Alaska, on March 23.

To study the transient nature of auroras, they have sent two rockets into space for a few minutes of measurements. The first rocket released vapor tracers, colorful chemicals that create visible clouds that researchers can see from the ground, tracing the winds in the neutral atmosphere. The second rocket measures the temperature and density of the plasma in and around the aurora.

The exact results of this mission haven’t been concluded. However, scientists are hoping this mission will illuminate how the aurora impacts the boundary layer and how much energy is released into the upper atmosphere.

northern lights, aurora borealis, Churchill, Manitoba, photographer

Explore Arctic Landscapes with Expert Guides

The northern lights occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. But, in order to enjoy this marvel, you need to be at the right place at the right time. Churchill, Canada, is one of the best places on Earth to view how the aurora borealis brightens the night in an ethereal display of color. You can experience the Arctic on a northern light’s expedition with Natural Habitat Adventures. Churchill has some of the most intense auroral activity on Earth, making it an ideal destination for a northern lights tour.

The earliest suspected record of the northern lights is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France, and since then, it has been captivating civilizations for centuries. The northern lights have inspired wonder in the generations of people who have laid eyes upon them, and many myths and legends have originated as a result. In Norse mythology, the lights were believed to be the glimmers of armor and gleam of shields belonging to the Valkyries—women warriors on horseback. The Inuit in Alaska believed the lights were the spirits of animals they had hunted, such as seals, salmon and deer. In Estonia, the brilliant lights were believed to be horse-drawn sleighs carrying celestial guests to a magnificent wedding feast. With Nat Hab, you can discover the local lifestyles of Northern Indigenous peoples through an array of winter activities, including igloo building and a traditional dog sled ride.

If you are an avid photographer, or if you just want spectacular photos to share at your next get-together, top-notch accommodations allow you to photograph the lights from varied heated vantage points. This includes a remote cabin in the boreal forest that we access via private snow coach over a frozen creek, and from our custom-built Aurora Pod®, with 360-degree views of the night sky through its glass top and sides. Intrepid travelers are captivated as they lie under a sky covered by astounding, twinkling lights, watching the luminous colors of the aurora eddy and swirl. The Aurora Pod is a heated, custom-built glass construction that provides exclusive, unparalleled access to the northern lights as one reclines in comfort with an unobstructed view of this spectacle. The Tundra Lodge is a mobile hotel on the subarctic tundra, where lights can be viewed from open observation platforms. Aurora Domes allow onlookers to observe the lights through clear Plexiglass and are located outside of town in utter darkness. Stepping to the upper level allows for an unimpeded circular view of the night sky.

While it’s possible to travel on your own to Churchill to view the aurora, there is no way to get the quality experience you’ll have with our naturalist guide by your side. Our Expedition Leaders are experts on the Canadian North, offering an in-depth interpretation of the region’s geology, biology, history, cultures and, of course, the aurora.

All photos © Eddy Savage