The spectacular lights of the aurora borealis are rarely seen outside the Arctic Circle, but fierce solar activity might soon send them southward. The continental US, Japan, and even Mediterranean Europe may all get a taste of the northern lights. From iO9:

Because the lines of Earth's magnetic field run towards the two magnetic poles, the aurora effect is strongest and most likely to be visible to the naked eye in the polar regions. The poles also have an added advantage, as their much longer periods of darkness mean there are far more opportunities for auroras to become visible.

But every so often the auroras become visible far away from the poles, thanks to a little help from the Sun. During periods of extreme solar activity, the Sun can create what's known as coronal mass ejections (or CMEs), which are huge blasts of charged particles. In almost all cases, these CMEs miss the Earth completely, and even when they do hit the Earth it's rare that they have any noticeable effects.

We're in a particularly strong period of solar activity at the moment, and astronomers predict it will peak around 2013. So look up and enjoy the view!

via iO9.

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