An awe-inspiring and vivid display stretched across the Alberta sky last night. Showcasing purple, pink, teal, and green hues dancing and shimmering as far as the eye could see.

For many in the Foothills region, this was the first time they have gazed upon Aurora Borealis, or as it's commonly known, the Northern Lights. 

Sure, it's beautiful... but what is it exactly?

It's a complex phenomenon and who better to explain it than a professor of physics and astronomy. 

Eric Donovan teaches at the University of Calgary and happens to specialize in the Aurora! Both Northern (Borealis) and Southern (Australis).

"People always associate flares and things like this, but there's generally a number of different processes that will happen on the sun that will lead to the solar wind being a lot more active, which in turn will lead to the Aurora being a lot more active."

Getting everything down to an "Explain Like I'm Five" level... Here's kinda what happens.

The sun emits charged particles, such as electrons, which fly through space until they hit something. (Think of it like wind.) When they hit the Earth's magnetic field, they have a tendency to either be reflected or follow the magnetic field lines to their point of origin like the North or South poles. These electrons (which are moving very fast) hit Nitrogen or Oxygen atoms in the atmosphere. They then transfer their energy to that atom and startle one of their electrons into an excited state. The atom is unhappy with this excited state, so it wants it to return to normal. When it does, this energy has to go somewhere. It "goes" as a photon of light. Giving you the northern (and southern) lights.

What's really cool, Donovan explains, is that it happens non-stop. 

Photo: Sandy Gee

"The Aurora is always present 24 hours a day, seven days a week at all local times, you know, from the day side to the night side and back again. It's just further north, typically the centre of the auroral zone sits at magnetic latitudes that are around Yellowknife."

Okay, so it's always happening! Why did we see it so well last night? 

"When things get more active, the chances that you see the Aurora in Calgary, for instance, go significantly higher, and certainly last night we were in the midst of a beautiful magnetic storm. It was creating beautiful Aurora and the Aurora got down to right overhead, Calgary and the Foothills, where you are located."

We are still in that storm (technically) so there is a chance you may still catch a glimpse of those dancing ribbons again tonight, however, it is not certain. He says they follow what's called the Planetary K Index, or KP for short. 

"No one's in the position to say, 'Tonight we're going to have a good show.' People are in the position to say, 'Tonight there's a fair chance of a good show.' Around 11:12 tonight the KP index will be around four, and it was five last night. It's usually a zero or a one. When you have a KP of four, there is a good chance you're going to see aurora here."

If you are interested in learning more about Aurora Borealis he recommends the website AuroraMAX. It's a broadcast live from the Canadian North that shows the lights during the aurora season. 

Find a link to AuroraMAX here.

Another is the Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers.