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Standing in the Light: Rainbow Symphony Blog

What Causes the Northern Lights?

what makes northern lights

The appearance of rainbows after a rain shower and the disappearance of the Sun during a total solar eclipse are not the only observable natural phenomenon in the skies above. The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are incredible displays of light that occur near the magnetic pole of the Earth’s Northern hemisphere.

But what causes this phenomenon, what makes the Northern Lights so colorful, and when can you actually see them? Let’s take a look at what causes the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, and how you can experience this amazing natural wonder of the world for yourself!

What Do The Northern Lights Look Like?

The Northern Lights are visible at night, and are best observed in parts of the Northern hemisphere that are devoid of light pollution. This includes places such as Northern Alaska, Norway, and Canada, or Southern Iceland or Greenland.

Like a rainbow, every appearance of the Northern Lights is unique. For many observers, the Northern Lights appear as bands of glowing greenish-blue arcs tinged with red that light up the sky, while others see the lights moving, pulsing, rippling, rolling across the sky!

What Causes the Aurora Borealis, Or Northern Lights?

colors northern lights

The presence of the Northern Lights is actually connected to the Sun –– specifically, to solar activity. Part of what makes the Northern Lights so fascinating is this direct relationship between the aurora borealis and solar activity. This relationship was first considered back in the 1880s, and was later confirmed by more modern scientific methods in the 1950s. In fact, research is still underway today to study the Northern Lights at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

When the Sun’s atmosphere emits solar winds in the direction of the Earth, those winds carry with them charged particles: protons and electrons. Thanks to the solar wind, those particles eventually reach the Earth’s atmosphere.

Usually, the Earth’s magnetic field deflects the majority of these charged particles from the Sun. However, at the Earth’s northern and southern poles, that magnetic field is weaker. This creates an opening for the charged particles carried by the solar winds to penetrate our atmosphere and collide with gaseous particles in the upper atmosphere, typically oxygen and nitrogen. The result of the charged particles from the Sun striking the atoms of the gases floating above the Earth is a release of energy, which manifests in the form of colorful light.

Colors of the Northern Lights

What makes the Northern Lights so colorful are these collisions, but it all depends on the altitude and the type of gas with which the Sun’s particles are colliding. For example, the most common aurora is the often-photographed greenish-yellow band, which is produced by charged solar particles striking oxygen roughly 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.

There are rare instances where observers will see glowing red Northern Lights; this occurs when particles collide with oxygen at about 200 miles or more above the Earth’s surface. When particles strike nitrogen rather than oxygen at lower altitudes, it produces a blueish purple aurora.

In general, the Northern Lights can extend from 50 miles to nearly 400 miles above the surface of the Earth, with colors that cover the full rainbow spectrum –– from indigo and violet through orange and red!

When to See the Northern Lights

where to see northern lights

The Northern Lights tend to be most visible between the autumn and spring equinoxes, or in the late fall and early spring. They are at their most brilliant during the phase during the peak of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections (CMEs) spike, or about every 11 years.

Of course, it is critical that you are in a geographic location that enables you to view the phenomenon, such as Northern Alaska or Southern Greenland. These are remote regions to travel to, and you’ll need to bundle up, but the challenge of getting there is part of what makes the Northern Lights such a rare and unforgettable experience in the first place!

Continue Your Study of Light

At Rainbow Symphony, we want to encourage the next generation of celestial explorers by creating educational tools to assist in your study of light and color. We provide a wide variety of eclipse shades for experiencing solar eclipses, diffraction glasses for observing the full spectrum of visible light, and so much more.

Satisfy your curiosity when you browse our entire inventory of products and find more educational resources when you read the rest of our blog. As always, be sure to contact us at by filling out our contact form!

Northern Lights

What Is Direct and Indirect Sunlight?

Direct and Indirect Sunlight

Direct sunlight reaches the Earth's surface when there is no cloud cover between the sun and the Earth, while cloud cover causes indirect sunlight to reach the surface. In gardening, sunlight falling directly on the plant is direct sunlight, while indirect sunlight refers to shaded areas.

Indirect sunlight also is called diffuse sky radiation, because it is sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface after being dispersed in the atmosphere over haze, dust, and clouds.

Whether you’re tracking global weather patterns, collecting solar energy, or simply planning out your garden, you can benefit from an understanding of direct and indirect sunlight. Below, we’ll explain the difference and why it matters to you!

When it comes to sunlight, knowing the difference between direct and indirect can not only provide a deeper understanding of how our solar system works, but it can have a practical implication as well: About two-thirds of solar energy that heads towards Earth scatters or deflects before actually reaching the surface, so knowing where the light is direct and where it is indirect can make a difference when it comes to using the Sun’s energy efficiently and effectively.

An Overview of Direct vs. Indirect Light

Let’s start with a short refresher on the set up of our solar system, shall we? The Sun is our closest star, and the Earth –– along with the other planets in our solar system –– revolve around it. The Sun provides us with nearly all of our energy and heat here on Earth, and it is responsible for day and night, seasons, climate, weather, and, of course, pesky sunburns.

Depending on the time of year, the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the Earth will vary, and the difference between the quality and intensity of that light is split into two primary categories: direct and indirect sunlight.

what does direct sunlight

When the Sun is high in the sky and directly casting its rays on the surface, especially in the summer months, this is direct sunlight. So what does direct sunlight mean for us here on Earth, exactly? Direct sunlight is more concentrated heat, which tends to be warmer but also covers a smaller surface area.

During the winter months, the Sun is lower in the sky and its rays strike the Earth at an oblique angle, otherwise known as indirect sunlight. Indirect sunlight is more diffuse and it also covers a broader surface area. This comes at the cost of temperature; cold winters are partially an effect of indirect sunlight.

What Parts of Earth Receive Direct and Indirect Sunlight?

warmer temperatures

Because the Earth is round and spinning on its axis, there are certain geographical locations which receive more direct sunlight than indirect sunlight, and visa versa. For example, areas near the Earth’s equator, such as Central America and Southern Africa, receive more direct sunlight throughout the year. In fact, the equator is where the direct sunlight is nearly at a 90-degree angle all year round! That’s why these areas tend to have warmer temperatures all year round.

On the flip side, the North and South poles mostly receive indirect sunlight; the Sun’s rays fall on these areas at extremely oblique angles. This explains the constant cold temperatures of places like Antarctica and Greenland.

What Does Direct Sunlight Mean for Us?

How does direct and indirect sunlight affect us? It’s a great question, not only for scientists and professors, but for everyone who benefits from the Sun. Areas where which receive more direct sunlight are more likely to sustain crops and capture solar energy through solar panels; areas with more indirect light are going to be cooler and less capable of sustaining crops or capturing energy.

That isn’t to say that the Earth’s poles don’t have their purpose; large masses of glaciers are critical for absorbing excess heat around the planet. In fact, many researchers are concerned by the expedited melting of glaciers due to climate change. Without those large patches of ice, there isn’t anything to control global warming!

Continue Your Study of the Sun

Whether you’re an amateur astronomer or a seasoned eclipse chaser, there is always so much more to learn about the Sun and its relationship to the Earth and our solar system. At Rainbow Symphony, our mission is to provide anyone who is curious about the stars above with the resources they need to continue their study of light and color.

Check out our entire collection solar astronomy tools, eclipse gear, and educational products to find what you need! If you have any questions about our products, just give a shout at 818-708-8400, or by email at rainbowsymphony@rainbowsymphony.com

What Is A Solar Storm and Why Do They Matter?

solar storms

It’s easy to take the Sun for granted. Every morning, it rises in the East and every evening it sets in the West. And unless it’s blocked by inclement weather, you can count on it shining day in and day out. So, you might be surprised to learn that there is a lot more activity happening on the surface of the Sun than you might think –– and that includes solar storms!

But what is a solar storm, and why does it matter? The Sun is a remarkable source of space weather, and its activity can have a direct impact on the Earth. Below, we’ll explain various types of solar activity, including solar storms, and its impact on the Earth.

Types of Solar Storm Events

When it comes to the question of what is a solar storm, the answer is a little complicated. When referring to a solar storm, we are really talking about one or more of the following solar events: coronal mass ejections, solar wind, solar energetic particles, and solar flares. Each of these events is generated by the solar magnetic field.

  • Coronal mass ejections, known as CMEs, are clouds of magnetic fields and plasma that can explode anywhere on the Sun and into any direction. Typically, unless the cloud is exploding in the direction of the Earth, it will not have any direct impact on the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Solar winds are produced from coronal holes, which can be generated anywhere on the surface of the Sun. If these solar winds happen near the solar equator, they can potentially reach Earth.
  • Solar energetic particles are released near the front of CMEs as it moves through solar winds along the path of magnetic field lines.
  • Solar flares are sudden bursts of photons that travel out from the surface of the Sun. These are also the sites where particles such as protons and electrons are accelerated. Like CMEs, unless they are facing the Earth, solar flares won’t have an impact on our atmosphere.

Solar Storms and Earth

What is a solar storm’s effect on Earth? When a strong solar event occurs in the direction of Earth, such as a coronal mass ejection, it sends highly charged particles towards our planet. Usually, the Earth’s magnetosphere acts like a forcefield from these particles. However, a particularly strong emission arriving at a southward angle can clash with our magnetosphere. Because the magnetically charged emission is oppositely charged than that of our magnetosphere, this causes a sort of magnetic ‘explosion’.

The ‘explosion’ creates a hole in the Earth’s magnetosphere which enables solar winds to penetrate our atmosphere, effectively attacking the Earth’s own magnetic field. In these circumstances, power grids, communications systems, and navigational equipment can all be impacted or knocked out for between six and twelve hours –– or more depending on the magnitude of the solar storm.

The Carrington Event

magnetosphere of the Earth

Back in 1859, a massive solar storm struck the magnetosphere of the Earth, known as the Carrington Event. This coronal mass ejection, which was the largest such event in recorded history at the time, knocked out telegraph systems around the world. It’s an example of the power of these solar events; luckily for the citizens of Earth in 1859, their entire civilization wasn’t dependent on international communications!

The charged particles given off by these solar storms interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, potentially triggering a geomagnetic storm and atmospheric disturbances.That’s why some scientists are trying to understand exactly what a solar storm is and just how often the Sun actually produces them.

If a solar storm event the size of The Carrington Event were to occur today, it could cause serious problems. A solar storm of that magnitude could knock out communication systems, power grids, navigation systems, and more. That could impact everything from television signals and internet connections to air travel and municipal electricity networks.

Researchers believe that The Carrington Event was not one sudden burst of solar energy, but rather several rapid explosions of solar energy that occurred between August and October of 1859. While The Carrington Event is still considered to be an outlier of an event –– a solar storm of its size has not occurred since –– governments, corporations, and private citizens should be aware of the risk and be prepared to respond accordingly to repair any damage that power grids and communications systems sustain.

Learn More About The Sun

The Sun serves as an endless source of solar energy –– and an endless source of fascination! At Rainbow Symphony, we want to encourage every curious star-gazer by offering more educational materials and better solar viewing products. We offer a wide selection of eclipse gear, including plastic eclipse glasses and paper eclipse glasses, solar filters to photograph the Sun, and other solar astronomy products to help you answer the question ‘what is a solar storm’ and more!

Explore our blog for more interesting insights into the stars above, or browse our store to find the tools you need to investigate the stars for yourself!

solar strom

Who Are These Guys? 3 Of The Most Fascinating Eclipse Chasers in the US

nature from around the world

A solar eclipse is an unforgettable event that lures fans of science, astronomy, and nature from around the world to locations where they can properly experience the phenomenon first-hand. Eclipse chasers are the most devoted of these fans, spending considerable resources ensuring that they can be in the right place at the right time to experience solar eclipses –– taking them around the world and back again to do so.

As of 2020, Jay Pasachoff, Glenn Schneider, and John Beattie have each seen 34 total solar eclipses. This means that the three men are tied for the world record! But what drives them to witness these eclipses time and time again? Let’s find out!

Glenn Schneider

Glenn Schneider

Glenn Schneider is self-described “umbraphile,” which means that when it comes to basking in the shadow of the moon, he simply can’t get enough. Dr. Schneider, an Astronomer at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, specializes in the study of extrasolar planetary systems and pursues scientific research on everything from galactic astronomy to star formation.

Schneider experienced his first total solar eclipse in 1970, and has continued to chase the wondrous events wherever they may occur ever since. Schneider maintains a log of his eclipse experiences, with photographs, location information, and other data points.

Approximately every 16 months, Schneider makes the journey to the path of totality for the next total solar eclipse to fulfill his destiny as an umbraphile –– a journey that never gets old. As of this writing, Schneider boasts a total of 1 hour, 50 minutes, and 50.2 seconds under the lunar umbral shadow.

Jay Pasachoff

Jay Pasachoff

Jay Pasachoff describes the feeling of experiencing a total solar eclipse, “like going to the seventh game of the World Series with the score tied in the ninth inning."

As the Chair of the Astronomy department and the Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College in Massachusetts, his passion is well known among eclipse chasers and the broader astronomy field. Pasachoff has been recognized for his scientific study of eclipses and for his efforts to emphasize the value of continuing to study these rare celestial events.

Recently, Pasachoff was awarded the 2019 Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. When being presented with the award, it was noted that during solar eclipses, Pasachoff becomes the “cheerleader-in-chief” for the field of astronomy and his enthusiasm helps others understand and appreciate the wonder of eclipses.

Over the course of his long and successful career, Pasachoff has had his research sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and National Geographic Society. But his interest in solar eclipses extends beyond the scientific study of the stars above; Pasachoff has worked with art history expert Roberta Olson to study images of eclipses and other astronomical events in paintings from the Renaissance and other historical periods. In 2014, he reviewed the astronomy-themed opera, Prince Igor, staged at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

In 2003, Pasachoff was awarded the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society, which commended his tremendous abilities as a teacher and professor, his writings and publications, and his advocacy on behalf of the scientific community and the field of astronomy in particular. Once again, Pasachoff’s passion “for sharing with the world the joys of observing eclipses,” was also specifically noted.

John Beattie

Where Schneider and Pasachoff devote their careers to the field of astronomy, John Beattie is a bit of an outlier when it comes to famous eclipse chasers. A proofreader in Manhattan, Beattie avoids the spotlight when it comes to talking about his fascination with solar eclipses. According to Schneider –– the three men know one another well -–– Beattie is an enthusiastic, even extroverted, eclipse chaser. However, he doesn’t particularly like press attention and prefers to remain a “private person.”

Beattie’s enthusiasm may be summed up by his plans for the August 2017 solar eclipse which occurred in North America: Schneider reported that Beattie wanted to experience the eclipse near at an airport that was within the path of totality; if bad weather was going to potentially affect his experience, he could quickly hop on a plane and fly somewhere else within the path where he could witness the eclipse from the sky.

Become an Eclipse Chaser

At Rainbow Symphony, our mission is to encourage the next generation of eclipse chasers by serving as an educational resource and an eclipse gear supplier. We want to be your destination for all things solar eclipse, including articles and insights on when and where to experience an eclipse, and how to observe eclipses safely.

Explore our blog for more information about total solar eclipses, and check out our entire selection of eclipse gear to ensure that you’re ready for the next big event! For questions, contact us by phone today at 818-708-8400 or rainbowsymphony@rainbowsymphony.com

Mother Nature's Other Rainbow: The Science Behind Colorful Sunsets

science behind sunsets

There is nothing quite like watching a sunset, especially on those evenings when the sky transforms into a beautiful spectrum of colors –– pinks and purples, yellows and oranges. Colorful sunsets are just another reminder that Mother Nature is an endlessly creative artist!

These awe-inspiring moments are a sight to behold –– but have you ever wondered about the science behind sunsets? Let’s take a look at what’s really going on during a sunset.

Why the Sun Sets

To understand the science behind sunsets, we first need to understand why the Sun “sets” in the first place. That, of course, means we need to revisit our basic astronomy!

We all remember that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but it also rotates on an axis. The reason the Sun appears to rise every morning and set every evening is due to the rotation of the Earth around its axis. A full rotation of the Earth takes 24 hours –– which is how we define a day.

As the part of the Earth on which you, the observer, is standing begins to rotate its face away from the Sun, the Sun appears to be sinking towards the surface of the planet –– or “setting” along the horizon. And voila, you’ve got a colorful sunset!

The Scattering of Sunlight

colorful sunset

As the sun sets along the horizon, the angle at which sunlight strikes enters the atmosphere lowers. As it lowers, it passes through a layer of the atmosphere crowded with particulate matter and various molecules that are suspended in the air.

When the sunlight strikes these particles and molecules, it causes the light to reflect, refract, and diffract. This breaks up the light into its spectrum of colors and –– depending on the shape of the molecule and the specific angle of the light –– causes the light to change. This process, known as scattering, is what creates those magnificent pinks and purples and oranges that we see when we’re observing a colorful sunset!

A more complicated piece of the science behind sunsets lies in determining the specific color and breadth of the event. They are nearly impossible to predict, as so much of the coloration you see depends on the volume of particles and molecules floating in your observable area of the sunset, as well as the wavelength of the light which passes through them.

Sunsets and Pollution

brilliant sunsets

It is an unfortunate truth that, in some cases, pollution is responsible for these colorful sunsets. Across the world, sunsets can be a sad side effect of an abundance of air pollution and a sign of low emissions standards. The smoke emitted from wildfires, too, can generate clouds of ashen particulates that contribute to brilliant sunsets.

In the United States, for example, Los Angeles, California, famously enjoys beautiful sunsets on an almost nightly basis. However, at least some of that beauty is related to the smog that LA’s millions of vehicles produce while crisscrossing the freeways each day.

(Fortunately, over the past several decades, Los Angeles has made progress on this front, reducing their smog pollution by nearly 85% since 1970. And the good news, Angelenos still get to enjoy amazing sunsets!)

The Symbolism of Sunsets

What any given sunset means to someone is deeply personal. Some people like to take sunsets as an opportunity to reflect on the day or meditate. In many cultures, a sunset marks the end of a journey, the passage of time, or a peaceful symbol of the end of a life.

Throughout history, sunsets have served as inspiration for paintings and poetry, works of literature, and captured on photographs and in films. In fact, in the film industry, sunset is referred to as ‘magic hour’ because the natural light creates an optimal condition for capturing beautiful footage.

Experience More of Mother Nature

From dazzling rainbows to colorful sunsets, Rainbow Symphony wants you to experience the best of what Mother Nature has to offer. That’s why we create products that help you discover these magical moments for yourself.

We carry a complete line of diffraction glasses to better explore the magic of light and color, eclipse shades to safely observe total solar eclipses, and suncatchers to celebrate the sun as part of your home decor. We offer bulk discounts for educators and customizable options for brands and events.

For any questions about our products, just shoot us a message by filling out our contact form.

Sunsets