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March 07. 2012 1:50PM

Northern Lights might illuminate NH skies tonight


U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Joshua Strang captured this stunning image of the Northern Lights above Bear Lake in Alaska in January 2005. 

A powerful solar flare that erupted from the sun this week could bring the Northern Lights to the night sky over parts of New Hampshire tonight and again Thursday night.

Space weather forecasters said Tuesday night's solar flare was the largest since last August and is expected to create a strong geomagnetic storm that could make the aurora borealis visible in lower latitudes.

“Certainly the northern tier of the United States has some chance of seeing the aurora,” said Bob Rutledge, lead forecaster at the National Space Weather Prediction Center.

The best time to try to catch a glimpse of the sheets of red and green colors would most likely be shortly after midnight tonight, Rutledge said. The aurora may still be visible after dark Thursday night, but Rutledge said there's less chance of seeing the lights at that point.

“The farther north you go, the better off you're going to be,” he said.

Those hoping to catch the aurora should look to the north. Even if they don't see it overhead, Rutledge said the lights can still be visible from 600 miles away.

A brighter moon, clouds, and other light pollution could affect the visibility.

The strong solar flare comes at a time when the sun is becoming more active. The sun undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity, with the latest cycle beginning in late 2008. Rutledge said activity is expected to peak around May 2013, meaning there will likely be more opportunities to see the aurora farther south in the months ahead.

While the aurora can be an awesome sight for those lucky enough to see it, scientists are worried about the risks solar storms pose to Earth. Stronger storms have the potential to knock out power grids, military and airline communications, satellites, global-positioning system signals, and affect other devices.

Rutledge said this week's flare and the resulting storm isn't expected to create significant problems on Earth.


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