MSU logo Minority Serving Institution Partnership Development Program

Northern Lights: Fun Facts

  • Studying Aurorae
  • Mysterious Solar Activity
  • Other Planets
  • Montana's Satellite

Solar Physics research

Solar Physics: Studying the Sun is an important part of predicting auroral activity. Knowing when and where a flare or CME is likely to occur gives vital warning for satellites that may be affected. If you are interested in studying the Sun, Montana is a great place to do it. The MSU Solar Physics Group is one of the largest in the country! Solar physicists at MSU work on everything from launching rockets to look at the Sun to developing the theoretical framework that helps us understand how the Sun works.

THEMISTHEMIS: A fleet of five NASA spacecraft named the "Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions During Substorms" (or THEMIS for short) was launched in 2007 to study space weather to help learn about aurorae. The probes are dispersed along the Earth's magnetotail and each carries electric, magnetic, and particle detectors. Their data showed clearly that magnetic reconnection is a precursor to aurorae.

THEMIS also showed that plasma backlash from magnetic reconnection in the magnetotail can shock the Earth's magnetic field and cause it to reverberate in what is called a "spacequake".

While the solar cycle usually stays close to an 11 year track, sometimes it varies. From 1645 to 1715 (70 years) very few sunspots were observed, known as the Maunder Minimum. It is associated with colder than usual winters, called the Little Ice Age, although the exact connection between solar activity and global temperatures is unclear. Maunder minimum

The most powerful solar storm in recorded history occurred in 1859, known as the Solar Superstorm or the Carrington Event. The auroral oval extended far south - even people in the Caribbean reported seeing them! The lights were so bright in the Rocky Mountains, that residents woke up thinking it was daytime. Astronomer Robert Carrington observed numerous sunspots, a huge solar flare, and CME that traveled to Earth in less than a day. Telegraphs all over the world were interrupted and started sparking, even when unplugged.

Sun Layers


Scientists believe the Sun is separated into layers like an onion.
The average temperature of the surface, or photosphere, of the Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while sunspots are "only" about 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The outer, wispy atmosphere of the Sun, the corona, extends far into space and happens to be much hotter than the photosphere - millions of degrees! No one is quite sure why the corona is so hot.

Saturn AuroraJupiter AuroraAuroras occur on other planets, too! Auroral ovals have been observed on both Jupiter and Saturn. These planets have very strong mangetic fields, so their magnetospheres are even larger than Earth's. Jupiter's aurorae are tied more to its geologically active moon Io rather than solar activity. Volcanic explosions on Io create a cloud of plasma that is captured by Jupiter's magnetic field and filtered to the poles, exciting the atoms in the clouds of Jupiter and making them glow.

E1PExplorer 1 prime

Montana State University's Space Science and Engineering Lab (SSEL) designed and built a small CubeSat satellite called Explorer 1 [prime] that is scheduled to "hitch a ride" on NASA's Glory spacecraft on November 22nd, 2010. If successful, this will be the first satellite in outer space built in Montana! Explorer 1 [prime] fits into a 10.5 cubic centimeter box and contains one of the original Geiger counters from NASA's first mission ever, Explorer 1. The Geiger counter counted particle hits as it orbited in space, mapping out regions of high particle concentration that helped with the discovery of the Van Allen Belts.