This may be the darkest part of the year, but it is also the best time to search the skies. The moon and the stars are so easily visible, they can become part of a regular family discussion. Kids can watch for them on the way to school in the morning and again before dinner at night.

And then there’s the aurora. Museum outreach specialist Gabrielle Vance said many kids in Fairbanks are keen aurora watchers and have their own observations to share about the color, shape and movement of this atmospheric phenomenon, the result of energetic particles entering the upper atmosphere.

At a recent Family Day exploring outer space at the museum, Vance demonstrated how the aurora is created. 

“The kids talked about molecules in the atmosphere being excited, jumping up to a higher energy state and giving off light as they fall back down,” she said. “I asked the kids if they’ve ever jumped up and down because they were excited. One kid said, ‘Yeah, like when I’m at the fair!’”

Then the group jumped up and down like excited molecules.

“I like to act things out,” Vance said. “Visuals are also wonderful. We used two beautiful docent-made quilts to illustrate the aurora, as well as a demonstration with live electricity.”

Appreciating the aurora is easy, but it’s also beneficial to understand the science behind it. The aurora illustrates much of what makes our planet unique and habitable — our magnetic field, our atmosphere, our proximity to the sun.

From a science and safety perspective, the better we understand the aurora and space weather in general, the better we can predict it — much like weather on earth. Solar storms can disrupt GPS and radio signals, with negative effects for communications and navigation.

Education and Public Programs Manager Jen Arseneau said these are lessons that can be explored through a variety of ways. 

“Because our earth is like a giant magnet and has an atmosphere, we have auroras. Understanding how magnets and electricity are related is a fun discovery and helps explain the aurora,” she said. 

Parents and kids can experiment together to better understand how magnetic forces work. Arseneau said you can start by grabbing magnets from the fridge. 

“See what they do and don’t stick to,” she said. “Try flipping them around to see if stronger ones repel or attract in different orientations.”

You also can try using static electricity to bend water: Rub an inflated balloon on your hair and move close to water running from a faucet. Watch the water column bend as the molecules align their charges with the balloon.

Another idea is to look at images of auroras at the earth’s poles and imagine the magnet inside. The colors of the aurora reflect the makeup of our atmosphere. Paint or color with chalk and discuss why we see the colors we do. The common green color is created by oxygen. If our atmosphere wasn’t composed of nitrogen and oxygen, we would see different colors.

Vance said the museum is a great place to learn about the aurora. 

“We approach it from a multidisciplinary perspective, exploring it through art, music and science,” she said.

The museum offers a variety of ways to experience the aurora, no matter the time of the year. “Dynamic Aurora,” a film produced by the museum, is seen by thousands of visitors each year. There is also an aurora exhibit in the Gallery of Alaska and the Place Where You Go To Listen, a light and sound installation created by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, which translates auroral activity into sound.

Theres Bakker is the manager of Marketing and Communication at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North. Contact her by phone at 474-7505, Ext. 6941 or by email at tasbakker@alaska.edu.