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Northern Lights may be visible tonight as geomagnetic storm heads our way

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Overpowering the light pollution
Northern lights in Duluth, June 22, 2015.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News file

Look up tonight and you might just see the Northern Lights.

  Our planet is under watch for a strong geomagnetic storm Wednesday, with minor storming possible through Thursday. That means the conditions are prime for aurora borealis viewing.

  "Minnesota certainly would have a shot at it, assuming that it remains strong enough through the evening into the night," and the skies remain clear, said Terry Onsager, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colo.

  The storm watch was prompted when a space-based telescope saw a coronal mass ejection — essentially a piece of the sun that blasts off its surface — heading toward earth on Monday, Onsager said.

  When this type of energy hits earth, it acts like a large battery around the planet and causes magnetic energy to vary. If you were holding a compass during a strong geomagnetic storm, it would wiggle, Onsager said.

  Scientists are rating this forecasted storm a G3, which falls in the middle of the one to five scale used for this type of event. It's considered strong, but not among the biggest. So far in 2015, two geomagnetic storms have hit Earth, Onsager said.

  There's still a chance of this one not hitting Earth because telescopes can't track it past a certain point, but Onsager said he's hopeful it will.

  Hopeful for a storm from space? That's right. This type of geomagnetic storm isn't strong enough to cause much concern — mostly just pretty skies, if anything.

  While electrical utility companies would notice such a storm and it could throw off precise GPS activity, Onsager said, there isn't cause for panic. Any electric infrastructure issues are highly unlikely, and simple GPS devices like those in smartphones should still function normally.