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Watch the sky: Northern lights spark summer delights

Robert Snache / Spirithands Photography

Robert Snache, a photographer living in the Rama First Nation in Ontario, captured this view of the northern lights on the night of July 8-9. For more about Snache and his work, check out Spirithands Photography on Facebook.


A crack in the magnetic field sounds like the start of a sci-fi movie, but it's actually an opportunity for a beautiful auroral light show — as seen in these pictures.

SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips says the interplanetary magnetic field near Earth experienced a fluctuation last night and tipped south, opening a crack for electrically charged particles to interact with atoms and ions in the upper atmosphere. "Solar wind poured in and ignited the lights," he wrote.


The result was a five-star performance, staged for skywatchers in northern latitudes. "I had gone out to search for noctilucent clouds, but instead I found a super-clear night with northern lights," photographer Robert Snache of Ontario's Rama First Nation wrote.

Snache told me that he's the guy in the foreground of the picture, which was "shot with a 10-second timer." For more of Snache's work, check out Spirithands Photography on the Web, Facebook or Flickr.

South of the U.S.-Canada border, Shawn Stockman-Malone of Lake Superior Photo also got a great view of the northern lights from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We've featured Stockman-Malone's time-lapse videos before, but this one is different in at least two respects. First, the pace of the video is slower, which is "more realistic to what you might see with the aurora" in real time, he said. And if you click the video to full-screen resolution, you'll notice a dark shape flitting through the start of the scene. That's a great blue heron, Stockman-Malone said.

"Scared the heck when I saw it flying around just barely over the lake," he told me an email. "All I saw was a big black blob, thought maybe it was a goose. I didn't see it on the shore until I put the lapse together. I must have spooked it when I went walking around looking for other photo angles."

This time-lapse video, titled "Northern Lights Over Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Lake Superior July 9, 2012" was posted by Shawn Stockman-Malone of LakeSuperiorPhoto on Vimeo. For more photos, check out Lake Superior Photo's Facebook page.

The auroral show could light up northern skies once again tonight: Space weather forecasters say that a strong wave of solar particles, blasted out from a sunspot region on Friday, could deal a glancing blow to Earth's magnetic field overnight. "NOAA forecasters estimate a 25 percent to 30 percent chance of polar geomagnetic storms if and when the cloud arrives," SpaceWeather.com reports.

To keep up with the solar storm prediction, check out the Space Weather Prediction Center's website and Facebook page. As of this writing, we're in the midst of a G1 geomagnetic storm. The prediction center's auroral map provides a rough idea of where the northern and southern lights might be visible, and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks also offers a great website for aurora-watchers.

Update for 10:06 p.m. ET: This is a great week to see Jupiter and Venus together in the pre-dawn sky, and on July 14-15, the moon joins the morning show. So, even if you're not in the aurora zone, there's still a good reason to stay up late ... or get up early. If you snap a picture of a celestial sight, please consider sharing it with us via msnbc.com's FirstPerson photo-upload webpage

More auroral glories:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as msnbc.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.