Huge solar eruption could see aurora over Irish skies

The Northern Lights as seen in Norway, 2012.
By Dave Molloy

A huge solar flare eruption could lead to the dazzling display of the aurora borealis - the northern lights - over Ireland this weekend.

A pair of solar storm clouds are heading for Earth following powerful explosions from a sunspot.

The aurora could be visible over Ireland when they arrive at earth and strike our magnetic field, some time over the next few days.

David Moore of Astronomy Ireland said that while predicting the aurora is difficult, the best time to look to the skies would likely be Friday and Saturday night.

"The sun is belching a lot - spitting out a huge amount," he said. "This explosion looks huge - and more impressive."

Our sun operates on 11-year cycles of activity, which means it's now in the same peak as it was in 2003, when the aurora was visible directly overhead as far south as Cork.

The X1.6-class solar flare, centre of image, erupted on Wednesday evening. Pic: NASA

Enthusiasts are likely to congregate around the northern counties such as Donegal, where many of the most impressive photos originate.

"If you get a weak Aurora, it's out over the North Atlantic Ocean," Moore said, explaining that there's little light out there to disturb the spectacle.

However, the phenomenon, if it takes place, should be visible from any spot that is far enough from populated areas to avoid light pollution from cities and towns.

Moore also said casual observers might see the aurora and not even realise it, unless it's particularly strong.

"Colours in the photographs looks green, but to the naked eye, they actually look white," Moore said, referring to weak displays.

The expanding cloud from the solar flare, captured by NASA's solar and heliospheric observatory. Pic: NASA

This particular pair of solar flares have the potential to cause an excellent aurora, because one of the flares was an x1.6-class - a particularly strong eruption.

It's believed that ejection is travelling at up to 3,750km every second toward earth, but we won't know if it will hit earth directly until it arrives.

But even if it skims by, it's worth seeing, Moore says. "A small glow on the horizon, if you've never seen it - it's something to see," he said.

And as to whether this weekend's event will be impressive, all Moore can say is "we hope so ... all you can do is alert people"

For enthusiasts, Astronomy Ireland also runs trips to Norway to see the Northern Lights in all their glory. The week-long journey to the Arctic circle on board a cruise ship maximises the chance to see the flickering green lights overhead, and the next one is due to take place in November.

Astronomy Ireland also run an aurora alert service, which you can sign up for free at www.astronomy.ie/friends

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