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Northern lights join meteors in dazzling sky display

Aurora
 larger 
Northern Lights over Hahn's Peak in Colorado  

(CNN) -- A bright burst of the aurora borealis over much of North America briefly upstaged the Perseid meteor showers, an annual light show that fills the night skies for much of August.

A shock wave from the sun set off the display of the Northern Lights, just as the Perseids peaked over the weekend.

Meteor watchers in Canada and the United States as far south as Los Angeles received an unusual visual bonus as they scanned the skies for shooting stars.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

"Bright red, green and blue curtains and fountains seemed to pour out of top of Hahn's Peak," said Jimmy Westlake, a physicist who camped out with friends near an extinct volcano north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Members of the Colorado Mountain College sky club "watched the meteors and aurora all night long," Westlake said.

Pair of coronal mass ejections August 9-10, as imaged by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)  

The shock wave that fueled the August 12 Northern Lights probably came from a coronal mass ejection that erupted from the sun on August 9, astronomers said.

The Perseids, noted for their colorful, long-lasting trails, normally put on one of the best meteor showers each year. Observers this year could see as many as 100 shooting stars each hour during optimal viewing times, according to NASA.

Seeming to stream from the vicinity of the constellation Perseus, the meteors vaporize along the edge of the atmosphere as the Earth passes through a cloud of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle.

The meteors burn as bright as stars in the Big Dipper, but are usually smaller than grains of dust. Nonetheless they smack into the Earth's "windshield" at considerable speeds, often exceeding 130,000 mph (209,000 km/h).

The showers officially extend until August 22.



RELATED STORIES:
Another strong solar flare heads toward Earth
July 14, 2000
Solar eruptions could spark 'northern lights' this week
July 12, 2000
Solar shock wave causes surprise aurora display
April 7, 2000
Sun-like stars said to emit superflares
January 8, 1999

RELATED SITE:
Colorado Mountain College
NASA

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