The northern lights over Greenland. The oldest documented observation of an aurora may date to the early 10th century B.C.

The northern lights over Greenland. The oldest documented observation of an aurora may date to the early 10th century B.C. (Image credit: Elena Pueyo via Getty Images)

A new study on an ancient Chinese text shows that the earliest documented case of an Aurora was in the early 10th century B.C.

The text describes a five-colored light that was seen in the northern part of the night sky at the end of the reign of King Zh. The exact dates of Zh's reign aren't known, but it's likely that it happened in either 977 B.C. or 957 B.C.

This colorful detail was found in the Bamboo Annals, a fourth-century B.C. text written on bamboo slips. Although scholars have been aware of the Bamboo Annals for some time, a fresh look at this particular section led to the realization that it detailed what might be the earliest describedAurora, study corresponding author Hisashi Hayakawa, an assistant professor at the Institute for Space- Earth Environmental Research at Nagoya

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Hayakawa and van der Sluijs reported in the study that the description likely refers to a geomagnetic storm. When the sun emits a ball of gas, or bubbles of gas that travel at high speeds through space, there is ageomagnetic storms.

Earth's magnetosphere protects the planet from the sun's energetic charged particles, but sometimes these particles get through and cause magnetic storms. Nitrogen gives off blue and purple light, whereas oxygen gives off green and red.

The southern lights, or the Aurora australis, occur at southern latitudes, while the northern lights, or the Aurora borealis, occur at northern latitudes. During the 10th century B.C., the north magnetic pole was closer to central China than it is today. It is possible that ancient people in central China, as far south as 40 degrees latitude, or just north of Beijing, could have seen the colorful lights of the sun.

One of the Bamboo Annals' translated fragments.

One of the Bamboo Annals' translated fragments. (Image credit: © National Diet Library of Japan)

The researchers said that the event was noted as five-colored light due to the fact that the mid-latitude auroras can present multiple colors. Hayakawa told Live Science that in October 1847 there was a colorful display in the United Kingdom. According to a report near Cambridge, England, the crown was formed near the magnetic zenith, from which all the rays appeared to differ, the red and green being quite like carmine.

The team doesn't have enough evidence to confirm an Aurora, so Hayakawa called it a candidate event. According to a study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the oldest candidate Auroras were written on tablets between 679 B.C. and 655 B.C.

Hayakawa noted that the latest finding took so long to be recognized. During the Song dynasty, the original manuscript of the Bamboo Annals was lost twice. The new study shows that the 16th century translation used the word comet instead of five-colored light.

It can help scientists model long-term patterns of space weather and solar activity by documenting candidate Auroras.

The study was published in January.

It was originally published on Live Science.