March 28 Aurora

I had some time to finally write a blog post. I also found it timely since the aurora season is coming to a close as summer approaches and I could summarize the season.

I had been anticipating this night because the weather prognosis was good for clear skies, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up too high. My daughter had a music recital for a play she participated in and I knew I might be coming home late and potentially miss a chance to shoot the aurora.

Earlier in the week, actually the week prior to, I had gotten my hopes up twice for a really good aurora. Not to poo-poo NASA and NOAA or the aurora app on my phone, but sometimes I have a greater sense of when we will get a decent geomagnetic storm. Earlier, NASA and NOAA had predicted we would receive a geomagnetic storm from two separate CME’s (Coronal Mass Ejections – sunspots where the magnetic polarity in the sunspot mixes to a point where it literally short circuits and causes huge electric explosions which eject plasma away from the sun.) Anyway, they had predicted that we were in the path. The first one I was skeptical about but they should know. The second one was on the sun’s western limb but again, NASA and NOAA suggested it was coming. Both times my aurora app was predicting a geomagnetic storm. I had greater hope for the second outburst but it appeared to be too far over on the western limb. Again, I don’t get a paycheck from these groups so what would I know? Apparently, I know or have a better intuition than they do sometimes. Yes, I’m still a little bitter about it but only because I notified everyone and their brother that the aurora was imminent. So people drove long distances and waited, and waited and nothing ever came. A few of them I was in contact with as I waited inside my nice, warm home looking at the solar wind and density to show a sign of the approaching CME. Well, I set my alarm every hour so I could check the meters and get some sleep during the night. 4am rolled around and I saw the day was approaching so I called it off and the rest of Sunday was spent in a daze from lack of deep sleep. It was then I saw on NASA’s SDO (Solar Dynamic Observatory satellite) that a coronal hole was center disk and approaching. I was hoping it wouldn’t close up when it approached earth trajectory.

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And here it is, a real chance of a date with the green lady facing us and completely open. The only thing to do was to check the weather prognosis which showed potential. As the week went on, the prognosis held but I would be incapacitated watching my daughter’s recital at the play. I figured I’d get a chance but with such a small opening on this coronal hole, I might miss the strongest part of the show. I spent the day watching the meters. I mostly rely on the solar wind and density, the magnetosphere meter, and the BZ which is pretty much the same as the magnetometer but I like the magnetometer better. The solar wind had been pretty flat all day but near the evening’s approach, the density began to rise. This is the first sign that something is coming, but not necessarily. It was when I saw the solar wind speed come in that I knew I’d get the show I was awaiting. Only this time, I learned my lesson to not notify anyone and embarrass myself with shame. In hindsight, I should have sent out the notifications anyway but I didn’t want to lose anymore friends since friends are difficult to come by these days.

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Solar wind speed meter on a 7 day record. I screenshot the peak of solar wind speed from the night but if you’ll notice, the density rose before the windspeed arrived. it quickly fell back down as the density cloud wasn’t very thick and everything behind the density bow-shock is just fast moving solar wind. A thicker cloud would have built much longer as the cloud is bigger and collides with our magnetosphere. 
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Here’s the magnetometer readings from that night. 
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This is the KP index as recorded by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, Sweden. I use their meters because they are more precise than that of NOAA which I can only assume is a rough average. As you can see, SISP also has an average recording to the left but that misses the spikes of activity which is important to me to see what it was when I was out shooting. 

Returning from the recital, I looked out my window toward the north and sure enough, there she was. I pointed it out to my daughter and she said “Wow!” but that she was too tired to follow me down to the river to take pictures with me. That was a green light that I could go down there without obstruction when we arrived home. While home, I grabbed my gear and walked quickly down to the river bank. Of course, it’s frozen this time of year and that’s nice because the sky was so clear that the stars light lit up the snow and I could see very well.

I set up my camera and took a shot and sent it around to a couple of friends in order to give them some motivation to get outside but they were busy doing other things so I would enjoy this on my own. Here was a shot I took with my phone of my camera’s display after I took a picture of the aurora.

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The camera on my phone is jacked.. I don’t know whats wrong with it. I think it took some friendly fire from having been used in cold weather so the ficus doesn’t work very well. But this is more or less to prove that I don’t manipulate my pictures very much from the real thing. I usually just clean them up a little by removing overexposed portions or over saturated portions. The aurora varies depending on strength at the moment of shooting. Sometimes it can flare up and if you are set to a certain time exposure before the flare up and you take a picture and it flares up, the photo will be over saturated and look like junk, or less nice. So I will try to salvage it by pulling those things out of it. I prefer aurora photography that isn’t molested too far from how it really looks. I’ve seen a lot of WAY over exaggerated photos that are very popular but not my style. Each their own, but I try to keep it as real as it is. After I took about 15 pictures, I knew it wasn’t going to get any better so I packed my stuff and went back into the house.

I loaded my camera disk into my computer and this was the result from the shoot. This was the same photo I sent the display shot to my friends. Notice I pulled down the brightest to remove the overexposed portion of the aurora.

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This picture was shot using a 50mm lens. It’s a cheap lens that costs a lot of money but cheap in relation to lens prices. It’s a more realistic aspect to how you see it with the naked eye. The wide angle lens pushes everything far away to capture more of the sky but it also pushes away the aurora and makes it look smaller than how it’s actually seen.

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And out of all the photos from the night, this was my favorite. The wind was blowing pretty hard so the trees were moving and became blurred. I kind of like when they do that because it gives me the feeling that they are ghosts or spirits.

In this picture, I let the brightness ride but I pulled down the color saturation a little to clean it up. The bluish/dark purple glow above the aurora is really there. You will always see it if the solar wind is ionizes the uppermost gases above the ionosphere but there almost impossible to see with the naked eye. The camera sees it though.

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Overall I was pleased to finally get a shot of the aurora. I spent the whole winter unable to get many pictures both due to low solar activity or the clouds ruining my chances when we got something. On a good note, tomorrow night potentially has another chance for a night like this. I have sent out a few notifications but I added a disclaimer this time. ;-D