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The European Space Agency's Cluster satellites have flown through a natural particle accelerator just above Earth's atmosphere. The data they collected are unlocking how most of the dramatic displays of the northern and southern lights are generated.
This is the first time that scientists have measured such a region simultaneously using more than one satellite. The readings allow the electrical landscape of the acceleration region to be mapped.
These electrical potentials act in both uphill and downhill directions, accelerating particles towards and away from Earth, according to their charges.When particles strike the atmosphere, they create the shimmering curtains of light known as the aurora, or more commonly the northern and southern lights. About two-thirds of the bright auroras are estimated to be produced in this way.