Watch: Never-before-seen auroras illuminate Ladakh in rare event as geomagnetic storm hit Earth

Auroras, also known as Northern Lights in the Northern Hemisphere, only occur near the North or South Pole and are not seen in India. In April 2023, auroras were seen for the first time in India. The Indian Astronomical Observatory above Mount Saraswati in Hanle, Ladakh, India, captured aurora lights on its camera on the nights of April 22 and 23.

An intense geomagnetic storm that hit Earth on April 21, 2023 resulted in mesmerizing auroras in several regions of the Earth, including Ladakh.

The Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), which runs the Indian Astronomical Observatory, said on Twitter that it is “extremely rare” to see auroras at latitudes as low as Ladakh. Auroras are only seen in areas of high latitude, near the Arctic and Antarctic circles, which lie about 66.5 degrees north and south of the equator.

A 360-degree camera from the Indian Astronomical Observatory captured a time-lapse video of the sky on the nights of April 22 and 23. The video shows breathtaking auroras over Ladakh.

More about geomagnetic storms and auroras

When there is a very efficient exchange of energy from solar winds to the space environment around the Earth, a major disturbance occurs in the Earth’s magnetosphere, or the area of ​​space around the Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field . This disturbance is known as a geomagnetic storm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Auroras are a mesmerizing display of light in the night sky and occur as a result of geomagnetic storms.

Solar winds are made up of charged particles that travel outward into the solar system. Upon reaching Earth’s magnetic field, solar winds result in an explosive process that allows charged particles from space to accelerate into the planet’s atmosphere, according to NASA. This process is called magnetic reconnection.

Earth’s magnetosphere oscillates continuously due to solar winds interacting with it. Solar wind particles become trapped in the long tail of the magnetosphere and are accelerated toward Earth’s poles when magnetic reconnection occurs.

As the solar wind particles are accelerated in Earth’s atmosphere, they can interact with atoms and molecules in the planet’s upper atmosphere. This raises the energy states of the atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The extra energy is released as a burst of light. A billion individual collisions like this combine to form a glowing aurora.

In this way, auroras illuminate the Earth’s magnetic field lines.

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Solar phenomena that caused auroras in Ladakh

The sun released a coronal mass ejection toward Earth on April 21 at 18:12 UTC (11:42 p.m. IST), according to the NOAA. The coronal mass ejection was associated with an M1 solar flare.

A coronal mass ejection is a large expulsion of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s corona, traveling outward from the sun at speeds ranging from 250 kilometers per second to 3,000 kilometers per second. Meanwhile, solar flares are flashes of light that occur on the sun in different wavelengths. When magnetic energy is released from sunspots, intense radiation bursts or solar flares occur.

Citing Wageesh Mishra, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the institute said the coronal mass ejection arrived on Earth at 10 p.m. IST on April 23.

The coronal mass ejection proved to be an excellent night for auroral activity. The auroras were observed at lower-than-usual latitudes, Mishra told the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. He also said the last time such a severe geomagnetic storm occurred was in 2015 and the event resulted in rare sightings of auroras in Europe, China and Ladakh.

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