Auroras - Living with a Star
Premieres Tuesday February 11, 2003

Satellites, airline passengers and
power grids may all be affected
by "space weather"
Images courtesy of NASA, the National Grid

In some very real ways, whether we realize it or not, all of us are "astronauts", flying through the tenuous, outer atmosphere of our Sun aboard "spaceship Earth." We see how "space weather" affects many aspects of 21st century life we depend on but take for granted - airline travel, power grids, the satellites we rely on for communications and to keep the global economy humming, and even national security. As we become more reliant on space we are, ironically enough, more vulnerable to the effects of storms on the Sun, and their impact on Earth. Mark Twain is popularly thought to have said that "everybody talks about the weather, but no-one does anything about it." Improving science, sustained monitoring of the Sun, better forecasts and enhanced designs for power systems and satellites mean we can do something about space weather. That's how we'll learn to live with our star.

Humans have told stories about the aurora for centuries, but its mystery and grandeur remain compelling. Scenes from a contemporary ballet inspired by the aurora from Maida Withers and the Dance Construction Company provide a dynamic and colorful framework through which to recall how the Scots and Chinese once saw dragons in the sky, the Romans feared blood-red auroras, and medieval communities believed that the Northern Lights were omens of doom.

Courtesy Maida Withers Dance Construction Company and Linda Lewett

Michael Faraday, father of "electromagnetism"
Courtesy Royal Institution, London

We see how beginning in the 19th Century experimenters like the self-taught Michael Faraday recognized that magnetism and electricity were intimately connected, that flares on the Sun coincided with measurable fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field (Carrington, 1859),

and how around the turn of the century, Kristian Birkeland in Norway was the first to experiment - with a magnetized miniature Earth, or "terrela" - with the forces which actually shape the aurora.

Reconstructed "terrela",
courtesy Andrew Coates,
Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL

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