aurora collage

A rare and brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) was visible in the skies above West Texas and southeast New Mexico during the early morning hours of Wednesday October 29. This "geomagnetic storm" was triggered by intense sun spot activity, which resulting in a huge solar eruption.

Sun spot activity generally follows an 11 year cycle. The peak of the current solar cycle occurred during the year 2000. Remarkably, during the week of October 19-25, 2003, sun spot activity increased dramatically. Sun spot groups 484 and 486 became very large, and where characterized by complicated magnetic fields.

During the morning hours of October 28 (1110 UTC) 486 produced a very intense solar flare. This released high energy particles into space almost directly towards earth. X-rays traveling near the speed of light arrived in the near-earth environment within about 8 minutes of the explosion. Measurements of the x-ray flux indicated that the flare was the third most powerful solar flare on record (records began in 1976). Using images of the sun taken at multiple wavelengths from ground-based and satellite-based equipment, scientists estimated the shockwave from the blast was traveling towards earth at approximately 2100 km/sec (nearly 5 million mph), and would impact earth during the very early morning hours of October 29. At 1157 CST the National Weather Service office in Midland issued a Public Information Statement which discussed the possibility of an aurora occurring in the West Texas and southeast New Mexico skies after midnight.

Shortly after midnight CST (0612 UTC) the shockfront impacted the earth's atmosphere. As a result charged particles traveling in the fast solar winds excited atoms and molecules in the earth's upper atmosphere, causing them to emitt brilliant light in the form of an aurora. Although this process is not unusual, the magnitude of energy associated with the flare resulted in the aurora display to be very widespread and visible well south into the middle and lower latitudes.

National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Lindley photographed the aurora from just outside of Midland. A very intense display, or substorm, became visible around 0240 CST (0840 UTC) and persisted until 0305 CST (0905 UTC). The northern lights appeared as a brilliant red color in the northern sky with pillars and rays
extending vertically above the horizon. The color of the northern lights were a result of ionized oxygen atoms over 200 km above the ground. A much fainter and diffuse display persisted through most of the remainder of the pre-dawn hours.

graph of sunspot activity

Graph showing the progression of the 11 year solar cycle. In October 2003, sun spot activity
was on the decrease following a peak in 2000.


Michelson Doppler image of the sun

Michelson Doppler Image of the sun on October 28, 2003. This image shows three large sunspot groups.
The group located in the low center of the image is 486, where a very intense solar flare originated.


image of a coronal mass ejection

SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) image showing the coronal mass ejection associated with the intense
solar blast on October 28 in the form of a full halo surrounding the sun.
The full halo is indicative of an earth directed eruption.


graph of solar flare activity

The spike on the left side of this graph traces the abrupt arrival of x-rays arriving in the near-earth environment shortly
after the intense solar flare on October 28. The spike on the right depicts a second powerful solar eruption which occurred on the afternoon of the 29th. The effects of the most recent event are yet to be determined as of this writing.


picture of the Aurora Borealis as viewed from Midland, Texas

picture of the Aurora Borealis as viewed from Midland, Texas

picture of the Aurora Borealis as viewed from Midland, Texas

Images captured along County Road 60 and Highway 158 just northwest of Midland between 0240 and 0305 CST
(0840 and 0905 UTC) showing the intense aurora substorm.


picture of the Aurora Borealis as viewed from Midland, Texas

Image taken at approximately 0400 CST (1000 UTC) from Highway 158 of faint and diffuse auroral glow.


NOTE: Data images from the NOAA Space Environment Center and SOHO.

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