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Solar flare? Yes, but tonight's northern lights have a more spectacular cause.

A solar flare erupted from the sun's surface Tuesday, but the star of the solar storm was something much larger – a coronal mass ejection. It is distorting Earth's magnetic field and will produce the northern lights (and southern lights) tonight.

By Staff writer / June 8, 2011

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of the sun belching out massive quantities of energy and matter on Tuesday, June 7. Because of this "coronal mass ejection," more people than usual may be able to see the northern or southern lights on Wednesday night (weather permitting).

Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA / AP

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Skywatchers in the northern US tonight may become the beneficiaries of a major burp from the sun that took place June 7.

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While the solar storm did include a solar flare, the giant pulse of plasma, electricity, and matter that fountained across nearly half the sun's surface was a coronal mass ejection – and that's what we can thank for the auroral display filling the skies Wednesday night.

If the oncoming hordes of charged particles from that event reach Earth at the right time, aurora could be visible on the northern horizon as far south as Washington, D.C., according to an alert today from the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute.

Given the intensity of the outburst, "it is reasonable to expect [conditions] that would put the aurora over Milwaukee, and visible on the northern horizon along a line from Portland, Ore., southern Nebraska, southern Indiana, to Washington, D.C.," say aurora forecasters. Weather permitting, of course.

If you live in the northern half of the country, look north around midnight local time, say experts. Keep checking their website, too, for ongoing updates on viewing conditions.

Residents in the southern hemisphere would see the mirror opposite of any aurora in the northern hemisphere.

Tuesday's solar storm

The solar outburst, which peaked at 1:41 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Tuesday, was captured in spectacular fashion by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The spacecraft was launched in February 2010 on a five-year mission to observe the sun and its effects on space weather around Earth.

Tuesday's activity on the sun included a solar flare and a minor radiation storm, according to researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

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