Aurorae are produced by the collision of charged particles from Earth’s magnetosphere, mostly electrons but also protons and heavier particles, with atoms and molecules of Earth’s upper atmosphere (at altitudes above 80 km (50 miles)). The particles have energies of 1 to 100 keV. They originate from the Sun and arrive at the vicinity of Earth in the relatively low-energy solar wind. When the trapped magnetic field of the solar wind is favourably oriented (principally southwards) it reconnects with Earth’s magnetic field, and solar particles enter the magnetosphere and are swept to the magnetotail. Further magnetic reconnection accelerates the particles towards Earth.
The collisions in the atmosphere electronically excite atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The excitation energy can be lost by light emission or collisions. Most aurorae are green and red emission from atomic oxygen. Molecular nitrogen and nitrogen ions produce some low level red and very high blue/violet aurorae. The light blue colors are produced by ionic nitrogen and the neutral nitrogen gives off the red and purple color with the rippled edges. Different gases interacting with the upper atmosphere will produce different colors, caused by the different compounds of oxygen and nitrogen. The level of solar wind activity from the Sun can also influence the color of the aurorae.