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Huge solar eruption could make for dazzling northern lights (+video)

A giant solar eruption may bring an exceptional weekend northern lights display for those as far south as California and Alabama, a NASA scientist says.

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Auroras result when charged particles from the sun collide with molecules high up in Earth's atmosphere, generating a glow. The northern and southern lights are usually restricted to high latitutes because Earth's magnetic field lines tend to funnel these particles over the planet's poles.

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After remaining surprisingly quiet from 2005 through 2010, our star woke up last year. It has remained active in 2012, spouting off numerous CMEs and powerful solar flares, including an X5.4-class eruption in March.

Such outbursts are likely to continue over the next year or so. Solar activity waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle, and scientists think the current one — known as Solar Cycle 24 — will peak in 2013.

We should expect more action from sunspot AR1520 for the next week, said Joe Kunches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado. The sunspot region is currently facing Earth, sitting near the center of the sun's southern hemisphere.

"It's still big. It's right down Main Street," Kunches told SPACE.com. "It's in an absolutely prime spot."

Editor's note: If you snap a photo of sunspot AR1520 or any amazing northern lights photos and you'd like to share them for a possible story or image gallery, please send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com.

SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik (@tariqjmalik) contributed to this story. Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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