18 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

Surely you've heard of the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights. It's probably one of the most visually stunning scientific phenomenons there is, but do you know why it happens, or what makes it so colorful and spectacular? This list is full of aurora borealis facts that you probably didn't know. It explains how, where, and when these lights happen, and much more about their properties and their history.

The aurora borealis pictures on this list are also stunning. You'll be ready to pack your bags and head to the Arctic to see the lights for yourself. But be sure to finish reading the list first for some helpful hints on the best times to catch them.

  • It's Caused by Sun Particles Colliding with Gas

    The sun releases particles of plasma, known as solar wind, and sends them shooting towards earth. These particles are then drawn to the charged poles of earth's magnetic field, which is why the aurora borealis is only visible near the north pole. As the particles pass through the magnetic shield, they collide with gases, creating the colored lights.
  • It Has a Twin at the South Pole

    Charged ions from the sun are as drawn to the South Pole as they are to the North Pole. The southern light show, called the aurora australis, is less well-known than the aurora borealis because not many people have seen it. Antarctica is an inhospitable continent, and there aren't many locations on other continents where the southern lights are visible.
  • Different Elements Make Different Colors

    When the sun particles collide with oxygen gas, they produce green light, or a mixture of red and green. Nitrogen creates either blue or red, and helium creates blue or purple.
  • Green Is the Most Common Color

    If you ever see the aurora borealis, you're most likely to see a lot of green. The second most common color is pink, followed by a mixture of green and red, then pure red, then yellow. Pure blue is the rarest color.
  • It's Named After a Greek God and a Roman Goddess

    It's Named After a Greek God and a Roman Goddess
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    Aurora is the Roman goddess of the dawn who used her torch to wake the world every morning. The second part of the name, "Borealis," comes from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind.
  • It Was Named by Galileo (Possibly)

    Many believe that Galileo was the first to name this phenomenon "aurora borealis." However, some credit Pierre Gassendi, a less well-known 17th century philosopher and astronomer, with the name.