Fuzzy, Crafty Models of Aurora Science (Literally!)

One of the challenges of learning about aurora science is that so much is invisible or abstract. Fortunately, it’s not hard to make models of some concepts out of easy-to-find materials. In this post, we walk you through two easy do-it-yourself (DIY) projects that use nothing fancier than chenille stems (also called pipecleaners), paper, markers, and tape. You’ll explore the basic structure of the Earth’s magnetic shield, which contributes to how auroras form, and find out how the same structures in aurora can look very different from different perspectives.

Chenille Stem Magnetosphere

The Earth has an invisible magnetic field, or “magnetosphere,” with a north and south pole, kind of like a bar magnet or “dipole.” The magnetosphere’s outer boundary is where a gusty stream of material carrying the Sun’s magnetic field into space, called the “solar wind”, meets the Earth’s magnetic field. Solar wind plasma squishes the sunward side of our magnetic field and stretches the side farther away from the Sun into a long “magnetotail.” The kind of aurora we see most often is triggered when the solar wind interacts with the sunward side of the magnetosphere, sending energized particles into the magnetotail, where they are accelerated toward the Earth’s poles. They then collide with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, creating the beautiful aurora. 

Dr. Alexa Halford, a space physics researcher at NASA, designed a simple chenille stem model of the magnetosphere to share with students. This activity can be a fun project or an educational tactile to help visualize some of the science behind magnetic field lines, auroras and other magnetosphere phenomena. A benefit of this model is that using chenille stems you can stretch the field lines to show how which is more realistic to model the dynamic reconfigurations of the magnetic field that are constantly changing in responsive to the varying pressure of the solar wind. In addition, because this model shows magnetic field lines it is an excellent companion to our 3D Printed Magnetosphere Model, which focuses on the different regions of particles within the magnetosphere, but doesn’t show the lines.

The Chenille Stem Magnetosphere designed by Dr. Alexa Halford provides a 3D, tactile illustration of the Earth's magnetosphere

The Chenille Stem Magnetosphere designed by Dr. Alexa Halford provides a 3D, tactile illustration of the Earth’s magnetosphere

Click here for instructions to build the Chenille Stem Magnetosphere

Chenille stem aurora perspective viewer

Auroras dance high above the surface of the Earth and can be seen for hundreds of miles. People watching them often see flowing swirls or shimmering curtains. It can be tempting to think of these as always being different shapes of aurora– but often, they are simply different viewing angles of the same structure.

Because of the dipole shape of the Earth’s magnetic field, auroras occur around a roughly oval shape that rings the planet’s north and south magnetic poles. The oval usually sits at about 65-70 degrees latitude but can expand toward the equator during strong geomagnetic storms.

A wispy segment of the auroral oval over northern North America. Image by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite. 

A wispy segment of the auroral oval over northern North America. Image by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite.

The Earth rotates beneath the auroral oval. Where you are located relative to it determines some of what you see. One of the ways that citizen science can help with the study of the aurora is that simultaneous photos from multiple viewpoints can be compared and contrasted to reveal more information about the height of the aurora.  

Images of auroras from different angles

Images of auroras from different angles, an image from the south of the aurora by Donna Lach, underneath the aurora by Justin Anderson, and looking at the aurora to the southwest, art from 1882 by Adam Paulsen* respectively.

In this activity, you’ll create a model of aurora to illustrate how shapes can vary depending on the angle at which they are viewed. 

A chenille stem model of four auroral bands

The Aurora Perspective Viewer can be manipulated to illustrate how similar auroral structures can look very different based on the viewer’s angle and perspective

Click here for instructions to build the Chenille stem aurora perspective viewer

We hope that these activities can help illustrate some of the more abstract concepts of aurora. While the chenille stems don’t represent the same thing in each activity, they can help frame the story of how particles from the Sun activate processes that cause the auroras we see. These activities from the University of Alaska Fairbanks also complement the above projects. We’d love to hear about how you may find this useful. 

If you’re looking to continue exploring, click here to find out how to make your own 3D printed model of the magnetosphere, and check out our blog for even more ideas!

*‘Aurora (multiple rayed-bands) observed to South-West from Godthaab on 15 November 1882 at 00h 30m’, drawing in Observations internationales polaires, 1882–83, Expédition Danoise: observations faites à Godthaab (Chez G. E. C. Gad, Libraire de L’université, Copenhagen, 1893), p. 3.


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