A Night to Remember: Q&A on the Northern Lights with “The Aurora Guy”

The Aerospace Corporation
Aerospace TechBlog
Published in
7 min readMay 18, 2024

As night fell on May 10, millions of curious people across the globe ventured outside in the hopes of seeing the lights in the darkness. From New York and Washington to Florida and Texas, the night’s aurora borealis was truly a sight to behold. For many, this event will be forever etched in their memory as this was their first time seeing the colorful display of the northern lights thanks to near-perfect conditions and a nearly 20-year high of solar activity.

Aerospace recently sat down with Vince Ledvina in the Space Sciences Department to discuss this rare event and pick his brain more about space weather. As a first-year space physics Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ledvina is perhaps more recognized as “The Aurora Guy” with more than 350,000 followers across social media. Ledvina, who is currently an intern at Aerospace, was excited to share his passion with the Aerospace team.

What sparked your interest in space weather and aurora research? How has that interest shaped your career path?

I saw the aurora for the first time in 2003 when I was four years old coming home from trick-or-treating. I think that experience as a child embedded a latent passion for aurora chasing that eventually resurfaced in high school. Through aurora photography, I was more or less forced to learn the science of space weather, auroras, and space physics. I became a space-weather enthusiast, tracking solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and all sorts of phenomena that would mean higher chances of aurora near me in Minnesota.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of North Dakota and chose the school due to its proximity to the Canadian border and dark skies. I spent those four years aurora chasing, teaching others how to predict and forecast the northern lights, and people started calling me “The Aurora Guy” on campus. I then joined the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2023 as a space physics graduate student.

From a scientific standpoint, what is it about auroras that draws in your fascination?

The aurora is beautiful and majestic to witness and photograph, but it’s also a proxy for geomagnetic activity and space weather and can cause its own effects as well. I enjoy the applied side of space physics more than the fundamental science, and studying the ways in which the aurora affects space assets is very interesting to me. My Ph.D. research specifically focuses on auroral beads, which are the formations seen right before auroral substorm onset. Auroral substorms are daily space-weather phenomena that dump large amounts of energy into the atmosphere in the form of charged particles. This can change the radiation environment and the density of the upper atmosphere.

Did you get to see this weekend’s auroras? Have you ever seen auroras in an unexpected place before?

I did! I was on vacation in India when the storm hit, and I saw it just a few blocks from my hotel in Leh. Honestly, I’ve never seen the aurora in quite as unusual a location as I did last weekend. Normally, I am well positioned whenever any geomagnetic activity is forecasted. This time, I thought for sure I wouldn’t see the aurora, but I was pleasantly surprised!

What was special about this past weekend’s solar storm?

Friday night was comparable to the historic storms in 2003 and 1989. They’re roughly 1-in-20-years events, and this latest storm is one of the largest we have seen since the start of the Space Age.

Some numbers from the event:

  • Max speed: 1005 km/s
  • Max total field: 73.7 nT (84 nT at STEREO-A) Min Bz field: -50.1 nT Min Dst: -412 nT

The sheer number of CMEs directed at Earth at once was also impressive. At one point, there were over five CMEs with some Earth-directed components en route to our planet. We called this a “CME train” on social media. It is likely these CMEs combined or interacted to create a stronger impact at Earth, driving the G5 (the highest classification) geomagnetic storm.

This was the first major geomagnetic storm that captured the attention of the broader public. The last solar storm of this caliber took place in 2003 when smartphones capable of taking aurora photos were not available. The number of observers of this event was astounding. Combine this with a relatively good forecast by most agencies, and this geomagnetic storm was well anticipated and lived up to the hype.

The solar storms that produce these beautiful auroras can also disrupt GPS systems, satellite communications, and even terrestrial power grids. Government agencies warned us of this ahead of time, and there are news reports of some disruptions. What causes this?

Large geomagnetic storms can affect a number of industry domains. During a day of such a big storm, drag can be equivalent to maybe a week or two of “normal” conditions. The satellites lose the propellant/lifetime that they wouldn’t have if there was no such storm. The increased radiation over the poles also caused some airlines to re-route polar flights.

Intense currents in the aurora can drive complementary currents in the ground due to Faraday’s law of induction. Depending on the design of the power lines and the ground conductivity, these geomagnetically-induced currents (GICs) can damage vulnerable transforms and potentially cause widespread blackouts.

During geomagnetic storms, the radiation belts surrounding Earth can become enhanced with energized particles. These particles can impact Earth-orbiting satellites by charging their surfaces and causing electronics issues. These effects can degrade satellite performance or cause failures that can disable satellites completely.

Finally, during intense bursts of aurora, the increased electron content in the ionosphere can disrupt communications between the ground and satellites in space. GPS signals can be affected. There were reports from farmers of precision-farming GPS equipment losing lock during the geomagnetic storm.

Luckily, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is well prepared for a G5 storm and took all the necessary precautions and communicated hazards to their designated customers to ensure ground-based and space-based assets were kept safe and operational.

Tell us about your research on how auroras can help us understand satellite performance and the space radiation environment.

I am researching auroral beads and what causes them to form. The formation mechanism of the beads is tied to the overall dynamics of auroral substorm initiation. Auroral substorms are what we see occur as a result of a global restructuring of the nightside magnetosphere, or a magnetospheric substorm. During magnetospheric substorms, magnetic fields bend and snap surrounding Earth, releasing huge amounts of energy. These substorms fling charged particles towards the nightside of Earth like a slingshot. These particles can change the radiation environments in geostationary and low Earth orbits as well as heat the upper atmosphere. These particles create auroras when they impact our atmosphere, and this is the “auroral” substorm.

Auroral substorms heat the upper atmosphere. It expands and increases drag on orbiting satellites, which can affect their performance. Magnetospheric substorms can also increase the amounts and energies of electrons and ions around Earth (e.g., the radiation belts). An increased number of energetic particles can create higher chances of electronics failures in satellites flying through these areas. Auroral beads are seen right before auroral substorms and are tied to its initiation mechanism. Solving the question of what causes auroral beads will be an important piece in solving the puzzle of auroral substorms and magnetospheric substorms. We don’t know yet how substorms are formed, and this is a giant hole in our understanding of space physics and the near-Earth space environment.

How rare would you say moments like this past weekend are, where areas far from the typical aurora viewing area are treated to such a show?

These types of events happen on average once every 20 years or so. Auroras were reported as south as India, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and as north as Namibia, South Africa, and Argentina.

Vince Ledvina’s aurora photography has been seen by millions of people across the globe.

What does it feel like in the midst of such a nationwide experience like this past weekend to have so many people share your passion for these events?

It’s incredibly exciting and represents a key moment that we need to capitalize on to increase the public’s awareness of space weather and how it can affect our modern world. People want to learn more, and a new wave of aurora chasers was just born. It’s time to be a guiding light and show them the beauty and power of space weather.

Anything else the public should know?

It could happen again! Solar cycle 25 is nowhere close to being over. It’s possible that we may see another extreme geomagnetic storm in the future.

This last storm was important for testing our capabilities at mitigating a large space-weather event. I am excited for all the new science that will emerge from this storm as well. Since the last storm of this magnitude in 2003, we have so many more instruments and satellites working to measure the space radiation environment. It will be super interesting to see what effects this storm had on satellites, communications, and power grids. The dust is still settling, so we will just have to wait and see what we discover.

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