The first documented instance of an aurora, the fleeting but brightly colored lights that sometimes illuminate the night sky, dates to the early 10th century BCE. C., according to a new study of an ancient Chinese text.
The text describes a “five-colored light” observed in the northern part of the night sky towards the end of the reign of King Zhāo, the fourth king of the Chinese Zhou dynasty. The exact dates of Zhāo’s reign are unknown, but it is likely that this “five-colored light” event occurred in 977 BC. C. or in 957 a. C., according to the study.
Researchers discovered this colorful detail in the Bamboo Annals (Zhúshū Jìnián in Mandarin), a text from the 4th century BC. C. written on bamboo strips that narrates the legendary and early history of China. Although scholars have been aware of the Bamboo Annals for some time, a new look at this particular section led to the realization that it details what may be the oldest described aurora, according to the study’s corresponding author, Hisashi Hayakawa, Professor assistant at the Space Science Institute.land Environmental Research at Nagoya University in Japan and a visiting scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, he told Live Science.
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The newly analyzed “five-color light” description likely refers to a geomagnetic storm, Hayakawa and study co-investigator Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs, an independent researcher based in Canada, reported in the study. Geomagnetic storms occur when the sun, a “breathing ball of gas”, spews out solar flares or huge bubbles of electrified gas that travel at high speeds through space. according to nasa.
Earth’s magnetosphere usually shields the planet from energetic charged particles from the sun, but sometimes these particles pass through and cause magnetic disturbances, known as geomagnetic storms. Such storms can produce beautiful lights: oxygen glows green and red, while nitrogen emits blue and purple light. nasa reported.
Today, the northern lights, aurora borealis, occur in northern latitudes, while the southern lights, or aurora australis, occur in southern latitudes. But in the middle of the X century a. BCE, Earth’s north magnetic pole was tilted toward the Eurasian continents, about 15 degrees closer to the center of China than it is today. As a result, it’s possible that ancient peoples in central China, possibly as far south as 40 degrees latitude, or just north of Beijing, could have seen geomagnetic storms and the colored lights they produced, the researchers said.
Mid-latitude auroras can exhibit multiple colors when they are bright enough, which could explain why the celestial event was noted as “five-color light,” the researchers added. For example, in October 1847, a colorful display of auroras was seen in the United Kingdom, Hayakawa told Live Science. according to a report near Cambridge, England“a corona was formed near the magnetic zenith, from which all the rays seemed to diverge; its colors were very splendid and of a peculiar transparency, especially red and green, the former being rather like carmine, and the latter that of pale emerald; the central part of this canopy, or the one near magnetic north, was of a very yellow color, being a streamer rather like gold.”
Hayakawa called this potential record event an “aurora candidate,” as the team doesn’t have enough evidence to confirm an aurora. Previously, the earliest candidate auroras were records inscribed by Assyrians. astronomers on cuneiform tabletsdating from between 679 a. C. and 655 a. C., according to a 2019 study by Hayakawa and his colleagues published in the astrophysical journal letters.
The latest find took so long to be recognized for a number of reasons, Hayakawa noted. The original Bamboo Annals manuscript was lost, rediscovered in the 3rd century AD. and then lost again during the Song dynasty (960 to 1276 AD). During the 16th century, one translation used the word “kite” instead of “five-color light”. Now the new study sets the record straight, the researchers wrote.
Documentation of candidate auroras is useful, as it can help scientists model long-term patterns of space weather and solar activity, the team said.
The study was published online January 17 in the journal Advances in space research.
Originally published on Live Science.