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For thousands of years, people have marvelled at the spectacular light displays that sometimes appear in the night sky and they’ve wondered what on earth they could possibly mean. The Vikings believed them to be the reflections of dead maidens. The Cree Native Americans called them the Dance of the Spirits, and, in Europe in the Middle Ages, they believed the lights meant that God was angry. But the truth is actually even more extraordinary. This celestial light show, or aurora, as it’s known, is the front line in the battle between the sun and the Earth’s atmosphere. Every second, the sun blasts out a million tonnes of radioactive particles and the Earth is in the firing line. The sun emits a continuous flow of charged particles, known as the solar wind. This streams outward, in a wash of radiation. But when it reaches the Earth, it encounters a barrier. The Earth’s magnetic field deflects the particles and funnels them towards the poles. Here, they collide with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere.