MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When Chad Halvorson and his sister-in-law started their Northern Lights adventure Monday night, they had planned to head all the way to Hinckley. They only needed to go to Forest Lake.

“We thought it was clouds at first, but all of a sudden, they started jumping and moving and we said, that’s the Northern Lights,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, is expected to give us a second night of a beautiful light show. But what exactly are we seeing? What are the Northern Lights? Good Question.

“The first step you need is a coronal mass ejection from the sun, which sounds really fancy, but is basically a burst of solar wind,” said WCCO Meteorologist Lauren Casey.

That happened on Sunday.

That wind, which includes charged particles, will then travel a million miles per hour toward Earth. Once they reach Earth’s magnetic field, the particles in the solar wind interact with the particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

“The charged particles get the atoms in our atmosphere excited, and they have to release that energy to calm back down and get to rest,” Casey said. “The result is the beautiful display of Northern Lights.”

The reason people can see the Lights best near the North and South Poles is because the charged particles are diverted toward the magnetic poles of the Earth.

Meteorologists can’t predict when the sun has a coronal mass ejection, but they can give viewers a two-day heads-up on the best time for viewing the aurora borealis. This most recent Northern Lights could be seen so brightly and so far south because the coronal mass ejection was so intense.

Northern Lights are most common in spring and fall, but can obviously happen all year around. The best way to view them is away from city lights and in a new moon, when there is less moonlight.

Heather Brown