Just in time for spring to bloom, Washingtonians can expect some stunning thundering behemoths: That will be the illumination of the night sky created by exploding, glow-in-the-dark particles of dust and gas streaming from the sun and shot out into space. It’s the choreographed celebration of Earth’s closest neighbor, the glowing clouds of ice and gas known as the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis.
On March 23, a NASA aurora-monitoring satellite will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., along with a telescope aiming to peer right into Earth’s atmosphere to capture the glowing lights. The observation mission known as Space X-Aurora Proton Telescope, or SALT, was developed by NASA and will be able to survey an area of Earth roughly the size of Texas to try to better understand the effects of climate change and other factors.
SALT will orbit more than 8,000 miles above Earth’s surface where its three instruments will work together to separate out sunlight and reflect it back up to Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres for viewing parties. It will have three cameras — 1,000 feet in diameter each — to help its users see the star-shattering displays.
During the day of the launch, the SALT team will watch for the details from the delicate experiment. No free cameras? Pull a candle out of a jar instead. But as the weather warms and the aurora storms start up, they’ll be able to enhance SALT’s research, according to the space agency’s news release.
If you can’t wait until March 23, you can see the sights in person. As Earth Hour approaches in March — when we turn off our lights to reduce carbon emissions — the community of Bladensburg, Md., about 15 miles north of Washington, will hold a free party at its public access viewing area.
Get there early for best viewing, though — winter temperatures can lower visibility.