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Solar Storm Causes Fantastic Light Show

What a show!

North America was treated to a rare solar light show late Tuesday night, courtesy of a series of massive eruptions that swept the surface of the sun over the weekend and sent tons of plasma hurling directly at Earth.

The magnetic radiation from the solar event caused a beautiful light show across the Northern Hemisphere. Shawn Malone of Marquette, Mich., photographed the eerie green ribbons that swirled in the air over Lake Superior.

"The brightness was nice, and there were quite a few purple spikes [dancing out of] the green arc below," Malone told SpaceWeather.com. "A 30-second exposure with my Canon 5D Mark II really brought out the colors."

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"Woohoo!" exclaimed Canadian photographer Olivier Du Tre of Cochrane, Alberta. 

"I've been dreaming about seeing auroras since I was a boy and last night I finally did. I jumped up and down like a little kid when I saw that green stuff on my camera's LCD screen. They beamed right through the clouds."

NASA scientists report that the sun erupted not once but four times. But the events pose no health hazard to skywatchers, even though all four of the plasma bursts, or coronal mass ejections,were directed straight at Earth.

"It's because of our atmosphere," explained astronomer Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "It absorbs the radiation, as well as the magnetic field of the Earth, which deflects any magnetic particles produced."

The radiation "almost never" makes it to ground, he said, though the solar particles could affect satellites; Orbital Sciences Corp. believes a similar blast may have knocked its Galaxy 15 satellite permanently out of action this year.

Solar storms also can be a health hazard to astronauts in the International Space Station, noted Christine Pullan, a spokeswoman for the CfA. "Certain areas of the station have extra shielding, and NASA directs them to enter the shielded areas as needed for protection," she said.

NASA said no precaution was needed in this case, since the solar event caused only a magnetic storm -- not "extra protons or ionizing radiation." And despite the space station's specially shielded areas, a NASA analysis of events back to the 15th century has concluded that there is very little risk to astronauts. 

"We estimate it would be almost impossible for a solar storm to occur that would be so large to lead to a recommendation to evacuate the ISS," said NASA spokesman William P. Jeffs.

And the show ain't over, folks. Viewers who missed Act I should still have luck tonight, said Corey Powell, editor in chief of Discover Magazine.

"Pretty much anywhere with dark skies, from the mid-latitudes north," should have a good view, Powell told Fox News. "You just need to be out somewhere where you can really see the stars."

To get the best view, head out right after dark, he suggested. "The timing is great because the moon doesn't rise until really late, and we've got nice dark skies," though viewers in rural areas and suburbs will be more likely to see it than in floodlit cities like New York and Chicago.

"Look directly north, look for these very subtle things, you might not even notice it at first. Just look for these shimmering curtains of light," Powell said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.