People have marveled at auroras for thousands of years, often believing them to be spirits of lost relatives or warriors. Some Native Americans saw them as fires lit by deities, and shamans in northern Europe even tried to harness their energy.

Only in the last few centuries have scientists started unraveling the lights' mysteries, tracing them back to huge eruptions from the sun. And with our star's 11-year sunspot cycle now approaching its peak — meaning more solar flares and more auroras — NASA scientists are in high demand to help explain what's going on.

This isn't just because the northern lights are so mesmerizing, though. Solar storms can also cause problems on Earth, such as disrupting satellite systems, damaging power grids and exposing astronauts to dangerous radiation. To shed some light on how all this works, NASA's Goddard Institute recently released the following video, in which experts answer four of the most common questions about solar storms:

  • Do all solar flares and CMEs (coronal mass ejections) affect the Earth?
  • What happens when a flare or CME hits the Earth?
  • How quickly can we feel the effects of space weather?
  • Why are there more flares and CMEs happening now?

And for even more in-depth explanations of solar storms and auroras, check out these two videos, produced by the University of Oslo and NASA:

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

NASA scientists shed light on solar storms
As the 11-year solar cycle ramps up toward next year's expected peak, a new NASA video offers answers to common questions about space weather.