The famed northern and southern lights, scientifically known as the aurora borealis and aurora australis respectively, are one of our planet's most spectacular natural wonders. If you've ever witnessed them first-hand, or even glanced at one of the many popular videos online, you know that in terms of spectacle, they're unbeatable.
As astronomers recently discovered, however, once we look beyond our solar system, our own auroras are little more than a sparkler compared to the huge fireworks taking place on other heavenly bodies.
Researchers observing a brown dwarf roughly 20 light-years away from Earth recorded instances of northern lights occurring in the brown dwarf's atmosphere. You can see video of the "pulsing" caused by these light shows as observed by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, below.
"If you were able to stand on the surface of the brown dwarf we observed — something you could never do because of its extremely hot temperatures and crushing surface gravity — you would sometimes be treated to a fantastic light show courtesy of auroras hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than any detected in our solar system," Gregg Hallinan, team leader on the project and assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech, told reporters. Unlike our own multicolored displays, the researchers say these auroras would appear bright red due to an atmosphere largely made of hydrogen.
Brown dwarfs have largely straddled the line between classifications: too big to be a planet, yet too small to host the necessary fusion reactions at their cores to be stars. This latest discovery of auroras throws more weight in the direction of labeling them as giant planets.
"We're finding that brown dwarfs are not like small stars in terms of their magnetic activity; they're like giant planets with hugely powerful auroras," added Hallinan.
The discovery also has interesting implications in the search of habitable planets like our own, like the recently discovered Kepler-22. By analyzing the potential light shows on these so-called exoplanets, we may be able to determine if their atmospheres are capable of supporting life.
"This does lead to the conclusion that, with instruments sensitive enough, we may be able to see aurora on extra-solar planets," Don Hampton of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told CBS News. "If these show signs of certain gases, specifically oxygen, nitrogen, maybe carbon-dioxide, this would be a strong indication of life outside of our solar system."
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