Aurora! (And I actually SAW them!)

Jul 16

Written by:
7/16/2012 2:17 PM  RssIcon

Two days ago, there was an alert from Sky and Telescope magazine that indicated likely aurora over the next few days.  I had downloaded the app "Aurora Buddy" to my smartphone, and occasionally had received aurora reminders in the past.  In fact, I remember getting one on a night where lots of people in the Chicago area (who are also amateur astronomers) saw aurora.... and I MISSED it!  So I wasn't going to miss out if they were visible this time.

I looked on Friday night, as my phone "notified" me a couple times, but several treks outside netted me absolutely nothing.  On Saturday, the same happened, though this time the notifications were indicating higher activity.  I was REALLY bummed at this point, because not only had no one else see anything, but much of the higher activity had occurred during the DAY!  Ugh... had I missed the aurora due to... sunlight?

Turns out, I hadn't.

Apparently the best was yet to come, although what I saw for aurora was not what I've seen in video or pictures.  After getting "pinged" several times by my smartphone starting around 4:00pm, but only venturing outside after 9:00pm (it's been HOT here), I made more concerted efforts to find aurora, if, in fact, any were present.  Now I have quite a few streetlights and post lamps that are outside my house, plus to see aurora, one typically looks north from where I am.  And what is north of me?  Only the poster child for the worst light pollution in the U.S.: The city of Chicago!

But I persisted.  After a couple ventures outside, my phone pinged me around 11:00pm.  The activity was at it's strongest ,and showing possible aurora over/south of where I live.  I ran outside and looked.  And looked.  And looked.  Finally, I thought, "Are those high clouds?  Or aurora?"  Only one way to find out: Head to a bit darker location.

My older daughter ventured with me over to our high school, which fortunately has not only decent lighting fixtures, but no trees to block the view.  I set up my camcorder on the lowest light setting, and let it run while we talked about what we could see, where, and how it was changing.  Here is what I wrote about the experience at Cloudnights.com:

There did not appear to be any clouds in my area, based on the satellite data. My daughter and I went over to our high school parking lot and looked north (straight towards the light pollution of Chicago/south suburbs - ugh). From about NNE over to the W there was a patch of what appeared to either be clouds lit up by light pollution or aurora. 

For a while they appeared to be pink - this would be consistent with the light pollution, so we were not convinced it was aurora. But to the west - where this is not another city with any lights for 20 to 30 miles - there was a soft bluish/greenish cast to the grey. Was it our eyes? If there was any movement to them, it was VERY slow - akin to that of slow moving clouds.

But then the area towards Ursa Major in the NW changed over 5-10 minutes time. Instead of appearing pink (possible light pollution), it looked like the bluish-greenish-greyish that we were seeing to the west. This was unexpected, and whereas it could easily have been clouds lit up by light pollution before, now it was a different color. It may have been grey and us wanting to look too hard, but this area was definitely not pinkish anymore. 

That is the best I can describe it.  There was one section between Cygnus and Cassiopeia that I was convinced MAY have been an aurora, as it was a significant brightening of sky.  However, I was only 60% convinced I had seen an actual aurora, though my daughter, ever optimist, was 75% convinced (despite not having much of a passion for astronomy - okay, she doesn't have any at all, but she was excited about last night for some reason).  When I got home, my conviction percentage dropped a bit as the area of brightening I saw was actually a brighter section of the Milky Way according to Stellarium.

Fortunately, I got a couple responses to my post on CloudyNights.  Here's what they said:

From CloudyNights forum member Sorny

Yes, you saw the aurora. It had very little apparent motion, and very little color; your description matches what I saw the night before almost to perfection. Just a hint of greenish color, looked like a lit up very slow moving cloud.

I've seen some spectacular aurora, and now I've seen BORING aurora. I much prefer the spectacular variety; where it is bright, fast moving, and multi-colored.  

And from Sky and Telescope, and CloudyNights forum member Tony Flanders:

Yes, that sounds just right. I fairly often see a distant aurora as a featureless green glow along the northern horizon. When it's that far away, you can rarely see motion.

Anyway, in my experience motion in auroras tends to be rather slow -- things change on a scale of minutes rather than seconds. But the beauty of auroras is that no two are alike.  

So... I saw aurora!  First time ever!  I'm rather excited about it, even if they were not terribly impressive.  I guess I'll have to venture much further north some time and get a lot better view of them, if possible.  But "firsts" like this don't happen all that often, so this one was special, and I got to share it with my daughter.  Couldn't ask for a better night!


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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.