I have long been fascinated with the Northern Lights - aka, the Aurora Borealis. As we approach the maximum activity levels of the current solar cycle, there is hardly a week goes by that there is not some solar event that contributes to some spectacular views in the skies of the very northernmost latitudes. Unfortunately, despite many trips up north, I have typically traveled (a) during the summer, when long days and short nights interfere with viewing, (b) during cloudy, rainy weather, and (c) during solar minima when the sun does not generate the proper conditions for aurorae.
And yet, this winter produced some absolutely fantastic views, and I'll provide a link below that can lead you to some of those pictures. On at least one occasions, a red or green aurora glow could be seen as far south in the U.S. as Huntsville, Alabama. If you know anything about the conditions that produce aurorae, you'll understand that seeing effects that far south is pretty unusual.
|Sunspot AR1476 over Paris, 5/10/12, photo by "VegaStar-Carpentier"|
Spaceweather.com is the site I visit first to learn what sunspots are active, whether there are going to be optimum conditions for aurorae, whether the solar wind is likely to generate geomagnetic storms which interfere with electromagnetic broadcasts and power. It's also an excellent site to find pictures of Aurora Borealis, sunspots (like the one above, showing the "Hawaii"-shaped sunspot AR1476 which was large enough to be seen by naked eye at sunset, photo from Spaceweather.com Realtime Image Gallery #65105), the recent annular solar eclipse, International Space Station sightings, and learn of meteor showers and near-Earth asteroids. It is through the Spaceweather site that I learned of this incredible photo montage of this past winter's Northern Lights.
Two other sites that I visit for additional information are Solarham.net and NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. Solarham provides a lot of detailed technical information, since solar activity has profound effects on amateur ("Ham") radio function. The "Satellite Displays" function on the NOAA site provides some interesting pictures, including the POES Auroral Maps which show intensity of aurora activity over both the north and south hemispheres.
If you're looking at these sites and trying to figure out what "K-Index" means, or why a "North" Bz means no aurora, I suggest you head on over to Stephanie Osborn's Comet Tales blog to learn more about it. With more than 20 years in the military and civilian space program, Stephanie has a way of explaining solar and astronomical phenomena that is as easy to read as her novels. Don't be like COL Jack O'Neill of Stargate SG-1 and shout "Coronas1", learn about Corona Mass Ejections (CMEs) and the major consequences that they can produce here on Earth. Stephanie is the one who introduced me to the sites I have mentioned here, and I just can't thank her enough. In fact, I'm going to plug her upcoming book: "The Case of the Displaced Detective: The Rendlesham Incident" due out later this year. I have reviewed Steph's first two novels which find Sherlock Holmes displaced to the 21st century here, and I can't wait for the next. Visit her website for more information.
So, until next time - look up! (but not directly into the sun) and fill your brain with the greatest wonder in our sky.