Hoosiers might see northern lights this weekend, but it depends where you live in Indiana

Hoosiers who gaze up into the night sky Friday and Saturday evenings might catch a rare glimpse of the northern lights. The aurora borealis could be making its way further south above large portions of the United States because of increased solar activity, space weather experts said Friday.

Federal forecasters from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said that during previous solar activity of this magnitude, the “aurora has been seen as low as Alabama and northern California.” Experts say the aurora might be visible Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.

Here’s what we know about Indiana’s chances of catching this heavenly spectacle.

Seeing the northern lights improves after storm watch upgraded to rare G4

“This weekend’s geomagnetic storm watch has been upgraded from G2 (Moderate) to G4 (Severe),” according to astronomer Tony Phillips, writing on SpaceWeather.com. “Why? Because giant sunspot AR3664 keeps hurling (coronal mass ejections) toward Earth. Following today’s X2.2 solar flare, there are now at least four storm clouds heading our way,” Phillips said.

The Space Weather Prediction Center only rarely issues “severe” storm watches. The last time such an alert was issued was in January 2005. “Watches at this level are very rare,” the center said.

The colorful aurora forms when particles flowing from the sun get caught up in Earth’s magnetic field. The particles interact with molecules of atmospheric gases to cause the famed glowing green and reddish colors of the aurora.

What are Central Indiana’s chances of seeing the northern lights this weekend?

Space weather — much like an Indiana spring — is fickle, however. Unlike terrestrial weather, scientists who forecast celestial events like the aurora rely on observations of the 93-million-miles-away sun to make their predictions.

An early Friday morning forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t paint a rosy outlook for Hoosiers living in Central and Southern Indiana to see the northern lights — at least not directly overhead. The southern extent of where the aurora might appear cuts off at about halfway through the state, according to NOAA.

“Central Indiana is predicted to likely not have an overhead aurora,” said Butler University Physics & Astronomy professor Brian Murphy in a message to IndyStar.

But, Murphy said, it’s not all bad news.

Auroras are 100 to 400 km (60 to 250 miles) above the Earth’s surface, which means there’s “a very good chance” for Hoosiers to see the aurora if they look toward the northern sky, Murphy said.

Improving your odds of spotting this celestial light show will depend on where you watch it — the darker the skies the better, and with as few obstructions as possible. Murphy said the best hours to possibly catch the aurora will be from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. over the weekend.

“Keep in mind that these forecasts are like any other forecast,” Murphy said. “We may see nothing at all or perhaps the aurora may be stronger and we may have it be strong enough to be an overhead aurora.”

Why are the northern lights appearing further south? Blame the solar maximum

The northern lights, aka the aurora borealis, have appeared more frequently in the night sky over the United States recently. In April 2023, for example, a stunning aurora display was seen as far south as Arkansas in the South and Arizona in the West.

So why the uptick in aurora sightings? And is this expected to continue? Well, if you love the aurora, you’re in luck, as it may be coming to a sky near you more often over the next few years thanks to the “solar maximum,” which is expected to peak this year.

“There have been an increase in aurora seen in general on Earth,” Shannon Schmoll, the director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University told USA TODAY last year. “The sun has been more active, resulting in more solar storms that cause solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME).

What’s the difference between a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection?

While coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares are both tremendous explosions of energy that occur on the sun, they move at different speeds.

Solar flares, NASA says, are some of the most powerful explosions in the solar system. Particles from a solar flare can travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in minutes. CMEs, explains NASA, are large clouds of solar plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun that can take up to three days to reach our planet.

Tips for viewing the northern lights

“Go out at night,” NOAA said. “And get away from city lights.”

The best aurora is usually within an hour or two of midnight (between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time). These hours expand towards evening and morning as the level of geomagnetic activity increases.

There may be aurora in the evening and morning, but it is usually not as active and therefore, not as visually appealing, NOAA said.

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John Tufts covers trending news for the Indianapolis Star. Send him a news tip at JTufts@Gannett.com. Follow him on X at @JTuftsReports.

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