SITE VISIT: Lights in the Sky

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Science  07 May 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5416, pp. 871
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5416.871d

People once thought that the northern lights were the reflections of fires at the edge of the world or beacons showing the way to the afterlife. We now have a less romantic explanation for the aurora borealis: The light is given off when charged particles from the solar wind, guided by Earth's magnetic field, smash into oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. Want to know more? The Aurora Web site of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks's Geophysical Institute offers an illuminating collection of aurora facts and resources.

Aurora forecasts are the site's most popular feature, says the institute's Donald Rice. Based on solar activity, the Web team estimates how riotous a show might be 3 days in advance and posts charts indicating where best to view it. Another section explains the physics of the northern lights, offers photography tips, and answers frequently asked questions. (Does the aurora make sounds? Scientists don't think so, but research continues.) The Japanese beer company Asahi sponsors a tutorial on the aurora that includes striking images, and the K-12 section explains auroras for various age groups.

One part of the site aimed at researchers describes the Poker Flat Research Range, a rocket launch pad and science station for ionospheric experiments. Scientists can also download space physics data sets. And don't miss the film clips from the Aurora Color Television Project, an experimental video camera that captures auroral activity with a sensitivity 20,000 times that of typical film cameras.

www.pfrr.alaska.edu/∼pfrr/aurora

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