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Planetary Aurorae  

Steve Miller

Planetary aurorae are some of the most iconic and brilliant (in all senses of that word) indicators not only of the interconnections on Planet Earth, but that these interconnections pertain throughout the entire Solar System as well. They are testimony to the centrality of the Sun, not just in providing the essential sunlight that drives weather systems and makes habitability possible, but also in generating a high velocity wind of electrically charged particles—known as the Solar Wind—that buffets each of the planets in turn as it streams outward through interplanetary space. Aurorae are created when electrically charged particles—predominantly negatively charged electrons or positive ions such as protons, the nuclei of hydrogen—crash into the atoms and molecules of a planetary or lunar atmosphere. Such particles can excite the electrons in atoms and molecules from their ground state to higher levels. The atoms and molecules that have been excited by these high-energy collisions can then relax; the emitted radiation is at certain well-defined wavelengths, giving characteristic colors to the aurorae. Just how many particles, how much atmosphere, and what strength of magnetic field are required to create aurorae is an open question. But giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn have aurorae, as does Earth. Some moons also show these emissions. Overall, the aurorae of the Solar System are very varied, variable, and exciting.