How to Catch the Northern Lights When They Appear Over the U.S. This Week /

You don't need to plan a special vacation to see the Northern Lights live. If you live in the northern contiguous United States, the meteorological phenomenon may be visible from your backyard on Wednesday, February 27, Thrillist reports. Here's everything you need to know before catching the event.

What are the Northern Lights?

Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are caused by solar particles colliding with gases above Earth. When fast-moving electrons from the Sun hit the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere, they react with oxygen and nitrogen by transferring some of their energy to the gas molecules and "exciting" them. The excited molecules eventually return to their normal state and release photons into the air. On a large enough scale, these photons appear as the undulating waves of green, pink, and violet light know as Aurora Borealis.

This phenomenon is mostly observed at the poles because that's where the Earth's magnetic field is the strongest, and therefore where concentrations of solar energy are highest. But occasionally people living at lower latitudes are treated to the spectacle, as should be the case this week.

Where and When to See the Northern Lights

Due to an upcoming geomagnetic storm, experts predict that the Northern Lights will appear farther south than usual on February 27. In the U.S., northern states like Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine fall within the aurora's projected range.

According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, geomagnetic activity will peak between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday. That means the best time to see the Northern lights is after the Sun has fully set in your area on the night of February 27. And if you miss the lights this time around, they're always a plane ride (or a luxury cruise) away.

[h/t Thrillist]