Physics KS4 / GCSE: The Origin of the Northern and Southern Lights

Tim Peake introduces Helen Czerski.

Images of the Northern and Southern Lights are showed as their location around the poles is described.

Images captured from the International Space Station show streaks reaching up above the aurora into space.

The streaks follow the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field. Helen shows a three-dimensional version of iron filings around a bar magnet.

The aurorae are created near the poles where the magnetic field lines are coming down to Earth.

The Norwegian Physicist, Kristian Birkeland, proposed the first theory to explain why.

He made his own model to test his theory. A modern-day version, called a Planeterrella, is shown. His idea was that the Sun was emitting invisible charged particles in a Solar Wind.

These followed the Earth’s magnetic field lines and eventually collided with air molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere making them glow.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 4

When studying the motor effect, students could be challenged to use their knowledge in a novel situation.

The Sun emits charged particles which emit light when they hit molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere.

They could try to explain why the aurora only appear near the poles.


When studying magnetic fields and the forces on charged particles moving in a magnetic field pupils could be challenged to explain or to research an explanation for the location and luminosity of the Aurora.

Curriculum Notes

This clip will be relevant for teaching Physics/Science at KS4/GCSE in England Wales and Northern Ireland. Also at National 4/National 5 and Higher in Scotland.

More from the series Curriculum Collections: Physics

A scale model of the solar system
Centripetal force - explained
Days, Years and Seasons on Earth
How Halley’s Comet inspired Newton’s Law of Gravity
Landing a human on Mars
Launching satellites into orbit