HelioCrafts: Aurora Color Earrings

Hi! Laura here. Over the past two years, I’ve been learning about the world of heliophysics—the science of the Sun and its relationship with the planets, which includes the auroras. Aurora science gets very abstract very quickly, so as someone without a science background I’ve found it helpful to build models of some of the ideas. Since I’m a jewelry nerd, this has taken the form of lots of earrings! Today I’m going to share a beautiful and scientifically accurate beginner-level tutorial and what it’s helped me learn. Feel free to make and share this pattern, but if you do, please credit Aurorasaurus and point people back to Aurorasaurus.org.

A pair of earrings have red, then green and blue, then a little bit of pink colors, corresponding with aurora

Completed aurora color earrings

Today we’ll make simple wire dangly earrings that illustrate some of the science behind the layers of color in the aurora. The idea for this project came from a fantastic bracelet activity by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North. Check out their activities for students!

Background:

Aurora colors are made when particles that have been energized in the Earth’s magnetic field ricochet off atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, transferring some of their energy with each hit. The atom or molecule can’t hang onto the energy for very long, so it then gives off the energy as a tiny particle of light. All these tiny, individual reactions glittering and glinting together are what we see as the aurora. 

Aurora photograph by Janin Ober during the 2015 St. Patrick's Day Storm shows oxygen green, nitrogen blue, and oxygen red colors

Aurora photograph taken by Janin Ober during the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Storm shows oxygen green, nitrogen blue, and oxygen red colors

Different atoms and molecules make different colors of light: oxygen makes red and green, and nitrogen makes pink and blue. Different amounts of each atom or molecule at different altitudes—combined with some pretty complicated chemistry—mean that the colors look like they are more or less in layers. 

Diagram shows the various altitudes of aurora colors

Aurora colors in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Graphic by Aurorasaurus

What’s cool about this is we can look at aurora colors and estimate information based on what we see. For example, if I see a pink border at the bottom of the aurora, I can go “aha! That’s nitrogen below 60 miles altitude!” This is why color is part of making an aurora citizen science report, and one reason why citizen scientists on the ground can gather useful information about the aurora. Now, you may or may not be able to see aurora right this second, but we can explore some of these ideas in more detail—through crafting!

Supplies:

  • 2 loop findings (see gif below) with at least 3 loops on the bottom
  • 2-inch, 24-gauge head pins: one for each loop on the bottom of your findings (I have 3 loops, so I need 6 head pins.) 
  • 2 earwires or clip-ons, as you prefer
  • Seed beads. I use 30 green, 12 blue, 26 red, 6 pink, and 78 clear as spacer beads, but the numbers may vary depending on the size and style of your beads. My spacers are glow in the dark, just for an extra layer of fun!
  • 1 pair round-nose or needle-nose jewelry pliers

Let’s Craft! 

An animated gif shows the materials and assembly of the aurora color earrings

Crafting aurora color earrings

Grab a head pin. We will be stringing the aurora beads onto the head pins from the lowest to the highest altitude. We’ll also use clear spacer beads between each colorful bead to illustrate that each is a separate atom or molecule. 

Add a spacer bead and then a pink bead. Especially during strong solar storms, the aurora can take on a pink border on its lower edge, caused by nitrogen. This happens below about 60 miles altitude (97 km). By comparison, planes fly at about 5-7 miles altitude (8-11 km). Even the lower edge of the aurora is way high up! 


Aurora with a nitrogen pink lower border dances across the sky in Fairbanks, Alaska. Video by Andy Witteman
 

Add a spacer bead and start to alternate green beads and clear spacers. Green is the color made by oxygen between 60 and 120 miles altitude (97-193 km), and the most common color in the aurora. 

Sprinkle in a few blue beads instead of greens to represent nitrogen, which this time glows blue. Nitrogen blue occupies the same altitude as oxygen green, but in a smaller quantity. 

Add a spacer, then start alternating red beads with spacers. We’re back to oxygen, but up here above 120 miles altitude (193 km), it gives off red light. This part of the aurora can stretch up to 300 miles altitude (483 km), even further than the orbit of the International Space Station!

Head pins with colored beads on them

Head pin bead patterns

Finish with a clear spacer, then use pliers to make a loop at the end of the head pin

Repeat these instructions for each head pin, varying the quantities of colors for each section slightly to help give the earrings a wavy effect. You can vary as you like within the color sections, but the pattern I use for each earring is:

Head pin 1: 1 pink, 2 green, 1 blue, 2 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 4 red
Head pin 2: 1 pink, 1 green, 1 blue, 2 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 5 red
Head pin 3: 1 pink, 3 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 4 red

Using pliers, attach the head pins to the bottom loops of the loop findings, then attach your earwire or clip earring to the top

Use your fingers to bend the head pins into a soft wave shape to represent the movement and curvature of the aurora. 

Rock your new science earrings and be sure to share the story of the science behind the fashion! Tag us @TweetAurora if you post pictures; we can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Some ideas for the next-level science beader: take into account density. The red beads at very high altitudes are much more sparse, and the green get more and more dense at the lowest altitudes. Coming soon: more aurora chemistry resources!

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