First 'northern lights' seen outside the solar system
Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

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First 'northern lights' seen outside the solar system

Aurorae—also known as the northern and southern lights—decorate the sky when energetic electrons hit Earth's upper atmosphere. Now, as astronomers report online today in Nature, they've seen the same phenomenon on a dim sun located 18.5 light years away in the constellation Lyra. LSR J1835+3259 is either a red dwarf (a small star burning hydrogen) or a brown dwarf (a "failed star" that can't sustain nuclear fusion) spinning every 2.84 hours. As the object turns, the aurorae—shown in this artist's conception as a bright ring around the top pole—come in and out of view, altering the amount of visible light and radio waves astronomers detect. Although northern lights also exist on giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, the newly discovered aurorae are thousands of times more powerful; furthermore, the same electrons that trigger these aurorae may drive weather patterns on brown dwarfs, some of which have clouds.