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Science in Brief

Northern lights' forces explained

July 26, 2008|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NASA released findings Thursday that indicate magnetic explosions about one-third of the way to the moon cause the northern lights, or aurora borealis, to dance across the sky in spectacular shapes and colors.

A fleet of five small satellites, called Themis, observed the beginning of a geomagnetic storm in February, while ground observatories recorded the brightening of the northern lights.

A team led by UCLA scientist Vassilis Angelopoulos confirmed that the observed storm about 80,000 miles from Earth was triggered by a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection. Every so often, the Earth's magnetic field lines are stretched like rubber bands by solar energy, snap, are thrown back to Earth and reconnect, in effect creating a short circuit.

This stored-up energy powers the northern and southern lights, Angelopoulos said.

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