Green Waves of Northern Lights


Ultrawide Aurora #4 - Feb 21, 2015

Last night the sky exploded with waves of green and pink as the Northern Lights danced in the bitter cold.

With blizzard conditions forecast for the next two days, last night might have been our last for viewing the aurora from Churchill. But if so, we ended on a high note.

Ultrawide Aurora #1 - Feb 21, 2015

The aurora appeared on schedule again at about 9 to 9:30 p.m., following my evening lecture, as it has done every clear night for the last couple of weeks. It began as a sweeping arc to the north, as above, then moved south to encompass the entire sky.

Ultrawide Aurora #5 - Feb 21, 2015

About 11 p.m. the sky burst open with waves of green arcs, but with generous tints of red and magenta that the camera picks up easily. To the eye, the reds are barely visible unless the aurora gets very bright.

Shooting the Northern Lights (Feb 21, 2015)

Despite the bitterly cold temperatures of -34° C with a -50° wind chill, everyone in the tour group braved the night to take in the sight. And many managed to work their cameras and tripods, no small feat under such conditions, to get great shots.

The groups this week and last saw aurora every clear night, with clear nights on at least 3 out of the 5 nights of each course. Not a bad take, fulfilling everyone’s “bucket list” dream of standing under the aurora borealis.

– Alan, February 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Cold Night of Auroral Lights


Pink Aurora over Boreal Forest #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

It was a bitterly cold night for watching the dancing Northern Lights.

When Environment Canada issues Extreme Cold warnings for Churchill, you know its cold! With temperatures at -32° C and with high winds last night, the wind chill equivalent was -50° C.

But that didn’t stop us from watching the Lights!

Aurora from Churchill #4 (Feb 20, 2015)

I nicely finished my evening lecture at 9 pm when the Lights appeared on cue. They were faint at first, but then brightened nicely by 10 pm. The show was over by midnight, a well-timed and convenient display.

Aurora from Churchill #3 (Feb 20, 2015)

The 22 participants in this week’s course all bundled up and headed out, onto the second floor viewing deck and out onto the ground for views and photos of the aurora.

Aurora from Churchill #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

This was not a brilliant display – the official activity level was still reading only 1 or 2 on scale of 0 to 9. But it provided us with some beautiful curtains and lovely colours. The hazy appearance is from high clouds and local blowing snow.

Aurora from Churchill #5 (Feb 20, 2015)

The views from the Deck overlooking the boreal forest make for some nice photo opportunities, from a spot largely out of the constant westerly winds.

We have three more nights here, though snow is forecast for the last two. Tonight may be our last night to enjoy the Northern Lights. But all are happy with what they have seen and shot so far.

– Alan, February 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Colourful Curtains of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (Feb 17, 2015)

The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.

Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.

The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.

The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.

All-Sky Aurora #5 (Feb 17, 2015)

The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.

However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.

The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains #2 (Feb 18, 2015)

Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.

The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.

Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.

Red Auroral Curtains

This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.

The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.

But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.

All-Sky Aurora #7 (Feb 17, 2015)

I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.

If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.

Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!

We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.

– Alan, February 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Home of Pluto


Lowell Observatory – 13-inch Pluto Astrograph

85 years ago this month Clyde Tombaugh used this large camera to discover Pluto.

On February 18, 1930, Clyde Tombaugh found what he had been assigned to search for – Planet X. He found the world that soon became known as Pluto.

The instrument he used, shown above, was a refractor telescope of sorts, designed specifically for the Pluto search. It focused its light onto large photographic glass plates. Tombaugh would take images of selected fields each night, looking for objects that moved from night to night.

Lowell Observatory - The Pluto Astrograph Building

The Astrograph is housed in this building, now an historic site at the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona and open daily for tours. The Astrograph is on the upper floor of the wooden Observatory; the lower floor contained the darkroom where Tombaugh developed the plates.

Lowell Observatory - The Old Library Building Interior

To search for Pluto, Tombaugh mounted the fragile glass plates in what is called a blink comparator. You can see it at right in the image above, of the interior of the old Library building at Lowell, now used as a museum and as part of Lowell’s excellent Visitor Centre program.

Lowell Observatory – Blink Comparator

Using the comparator, Tombaugh would blink the images from two plates back and forth. Stars would appear to stay put, but any moving objects in orbit around the Sun would jump back and forth as they shifted position from one night to the next.

On February 18, he found an object that moved as expected, on plates he had taken the month before, and announced to his superiors that he had found the long-sought for Planet X, first hypothesized by the Observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell. It was another month before the discovery was made official and announced to the world.

Lowell Observatory – Lowell Mausoleum

Lowell is entombed in the Mausoleum on the Observatory grounds, and next door to the other telescope for which he is most famous.

Lowell Observatory - Clark Refractor

This historic wooden dome contains the 24-inch Clark Refractor that Lowell used to “discover” the canals of Mars, to bolster his theories about a dying race on Mars husbanding the last remnants of water on a drying planet.

The ideas of intelligent life on Mars popularized by Lowell continued to influence science into the space age and continue to influence the public even today.

But it was Lowell’s other fascination with Planet X that led to the discovery of what was called the ninth planet, now called a dwarf planet.

Pluto is the destination this year (on July 14) for the NASA New Horizon space probe, in this Year of Pluto … and Year of the Dwarf Planet, with the arrival next month of NASA’s Dawn probe at Ceres, the largest object in the classic asteroid belt, and also classified as a dwarf planet.

I shot these images of Lowell’s historic sites on February 8, 2015 as part of a visit to the Observatory to deliver a club and public talk.

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

The Blizzard Aurora


Aurora over the Old Rocket Range

Beautiful curtains of light draped across the sky despite the blizzard blowing below.

Last night, February 16, was the last night for aurora viewing for the first aurora tour group hosted by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Despite predictions calling for an active display, we had given up hope of seeing anything, as a blizzard had been raging all day and into the evening. But about 10 pm I knocked on doors down the hall — get up! The Lights are out!

Against all odds, skies cleared enough to reveal a wonderful all-sky display of Northern Lights, with multiple curtains of light snaking over the sky.

The view above overlooks the now derelict launch buildings of the abandoned Churchill Rocket Range, in use from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Some 3500 rockets were fired from here in its heyday, shot into the active auroras that occur here almost nightly under the auroral oval.

Auroral Curtains in Green & Magenta #2

This view overlooks the boreal forest on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay, and shows the multiple curtains that twisted and turned across the sky.

Tonight’s display was marked by fringes of magenta, rather than the deeper reds we observed 2 nights ago.

Aurora in Orion & Overhead

Winds were howling and snow was blowing, but from the shelter of the Centre’s second floor observing deck we could view the display in windless comfort, despite the -30° C temperatures.

Aurora from the Viewing Deck

The group was delighted at having this bonus viewing night. Now the concern is whether the blizzard will abate enough to allow flights in and out of Churchill Airport. The group might get another night under the Lights!

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – The Moon Meets Mars & Venus


Feb 20 Conjunction

This Friday, February 20, look west to see one of the best planet conjunctions of 2015.

On the evening of February 20, the waxing crescent Moon joins Venus and Mars in the western sky to create a tight gathering of worlds in the twilight.

The trio of worlds will be just one degree apart, close enough to fit within the low-power field of a telescope.

However, the conjunction will be easy to sight with the unaided eye, with the possible exception of Mars itself. It is now dim enough, and so close to brilliant Venus and the Moon, that picking it out might be tough without optical aid.

But any binoculars will nicely show this wonderful trio, as here:

Feb 20 Conjunction CU

This closeup image shows the field through binoculars, which typically frame about six to seven degrees of sky. The Moon, Venus and Mars will be a mere one degree apart.

The next night, February 21, the crescent Moon will sit above the Venus-Mars pair. But the two planets will be even closer together, just 1/2 degree apart. They will be a little farther apart on February 22.

Venus and Mars pass in conjunction this weekend as Mars sinks lower into the sky, to disappear behind the Sun by spring, while Venus climbs higher, to dominate the spring sky this year.

This will be a photogenic conjunction, so get your camera out. Use a normal to moderate telephoto lens (50mm to 135mm) to frame the celestial gathering above a scenic horizon.

– Alan, February 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Standing Under the Auroral Oval (2015)


Standing Under the Auroral Oval

The Northern Lights dance overhead each night from Churchill, Manitoba.

If you really want to see the Northern Lights, don’t wait for them to come to you. Instead, you go to them.

For the second year in a row I’ve been able to participate as an instructor during week-long aurora courses and tours at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the shore of Hudson Bay. The site is at 58° latitude, far enough north to place us directly under the main auroral oval, the prime location for viewing the Northern Lights.

If it’s clear, a view of dancing arcs and curtains of aurora is almost guaranteed. Two nights ago we had a marvellous display, despite official indicators of aurora strength and geomagnetic activity all reading low or even zero.

Still, the Lights came out and danced across the sky.

The top photo is selfie of me standing the display in a 360° all-sky image shot for use in a planetarium. The research centre building is at left. The view is generally looking north.

Watching the Northern Lights

This view is from the second floor deck of the centre, usually a bit more sheltered from the wind. It allows a good view to the north and east, where displays typically start, as they did this night. Feb. 13.

Auroral Curtain over the Boreal Forest

As the display developed the curtain rose up into the sky to arc from east to west across heavens.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (Feb 13, 2015)

This image, also a 360° fish-eye image taken with an 8mm lens, shows the display at its best, with rippling curtains hanging overhead. It’s part of a time-lapse sequence.

Red Auroral Curtains

The next night, February 14, was marked by fainter but an unusually red aurora, appropriate for Valentine’s Day perhaps. Or the 50th anniversary of our red and white Canadian flag.

The sky was a little hazier, but the aurora shone through, initially only with a red and orange tint, colours we could just see with the unaided eye – the long exposures of the camera really bring out the colours the eye can only just perceive when the aurora is dim.

The green curtains, seen here in the distance, did arrive a few minutes later, lighting up the curtains in the more usual green colour, with just upper fringes of red.

It seems the red is from low-energy electrons exciting oxygen only in the upper atmosphere. Only later did the more energetic electrons arrive to excite the green oxygen transition that occurs at lower altitudes.

With luck, I’ll have more nights to stand under the auroral oval and look up in wonder at the Northern Lights.

– Alan, February 15 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com