Norfolk’s night skies have been treated to the rare and beautiful stellar spectacle of the Aurora Borealis – thanks to the awe-inspiring power of a distant solar flare.

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The phenomenon, also known as the Northern Lights, occurs when energetic charged particles from the sun collide with atoms in the upper reaches of our atmosphere, creating colourful bursts of light.

It is normally seen much closer to the poles, but during geomagnetic storms the “auroral zone” will expand to include lower latitudes including, very occasionally, parts of England.

The sun is currently approaching its “solar maximum”, the peak of an 11-year-cycle where scorching sun spots are at their most intense.

At about 12.45pm on July 12, a vast active sunspot, known to astronomers as 1520, spat out a tempestuous flash of gas and particles, registered by scientists as an X1.4 class flare.

And by the weekend, these earth-bound projectiles – travelling at an estimate 850 miles per second – ended their journey across space in a shimmering cloud of green light, as they were obliterated by the atmosphere protecting East Anglia.

Dave Balcombe, chairman of the Norwich Astronomical Society, said: “The charged particles from the sun are sucked in to the north and south poles by the magnetic field, but this was a particularly big flare from a particularly big sunspot, and that is why it has come further south than normal. It was an X-class flare, which is one of the bigger ones.

“I have seen two auroras in Norfolk in the last five years, but it is a fairly rare event to get them so far south, especially in summer.”

Chris Bell, a meteorologist, storm-chaser and self-confessed “geek” when it comes to the science of our skies, photographed the aurora last night (Sunday) at Foxley, between Norwich and Fakenham.

“It’s nothing to do with the weather – it’s all space stuff,” he said. “We are going towards what is known as the solar maximum, in which the sun produces a lot of sun spots and you get a coronal mass ejection like this one. As it gets pushed towards earth it gets drawn to the poles and reacts with the few chemicals in the top of the atmosphere and produces these beautiful aurora displays.

“It is very rare to see it this far south. I have seen auroras here before – there was a good display in 2002 – but I cannot remember another night that has been as active as last night.”

Mr Bell, a forecaster with Norwich-based Weatherquest, said the aurora was difficult to see with the naked eye.

“The camera did a lot of the work,” he said. “I saw a pale white pillar of white and put it on a 30-second exposure.”

For more stunning images of the aurora over Norfolk, see tomorrow’s papers.

The movie shows the sun July 11-12, ending with the X1.4 class flare on July 12, 2012. It was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in the 131 Angstrom wavelength — a wavelength that is particularly good for viewing solar flares and that is typically colourised in teal. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

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