Bay Area astronomers delighted by northern lights spectacle over California – CBS San Francisco

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SAN JOSE — It can be hard to put into words a sight like the northern lights.

“I was just in awe,” said Xavier Mendoza. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Mendoza’s experience seeing the rare celestial event from Mount Hamilton in San Jose struck him to the core. Studying it is one thing. Seeing it is another.

“It just made my passion for astronomy become a little more solidified,” he said.

Mendoza is a grad student at San Jose State University. He shared his enthusiasm with professor Aaron Romanowsky.

“This is the most impactful event in 20 years,” Romanowsky said. “It’s just a fantastic hands-on learning experience for the students.”

People all over the Bay Area reported seeing the beautiful auroras, stemming from a powerful geomagnetic storm reaching Earth.

“This is about as strong as a solar flare gets, so it’s a beautiful experience, nothing too dangerous because we have our magnetic field protecting us around the Earth,” Romanowsky said.

Alex Filippenko, distinguished professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, captured several shots of the auroras from Orinda.

The red auroras are actually more rare than the green auroras, so that was really quite special for me to see such an intense red aurora,” he said. “It’s been about 20 years since there has been such a good one. That allows the charged particles from the sun to get to lower latitudes like Northern California, exciting the various atoms in the atmosphere and causing them to glow.”

Along with the beauty comes the potential for problems here on Earth, however, surrounding telecommunication and power systems.

“When these particles come in, they twang our magnetic field – it’s as though you hit a bell with a hammer so it vibrates – and the vibrating magnetic field lines of Earth then induce electric currents that go streaming along the powerlines, especially the long distance lines,” Filippenko said. “When those currents reach transformers at local power stations, they can short-circuit the transformers because they’re not used to such intense currents.”

Mendoza is hopeful the rare celestial event will be a source of inspiration.

“Hopefully this makes an impact, especially on our younger generation, to pursue some field in STEM,” he said.

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