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New data from NASA's Themis mission, a quintet of satellites launched this winter, found the energy comes from a stream of charged particles from the sun flowing like a current through twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun.
• Click here to see more images of auroras.
The energy is then abruptly released in the form of a shimmering display of lights, said principal investigator Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California at Los Angeles.