Chance For Auroras, North Korea’s Shining Star And Comet Garradd

The green glow of geomagnetic goodness painted the bottom of the northern sky early this morning. Minor auroras are forecast for tonight for northern regions. Photo: Bob King

The aurora crept up in the north very, very late last night. Just a green glow, not too much. I noticed the light around 11:30 p.m. and watched it slowly intensify into a bright arc speared by occasional faint rays just before 1 a.m. A half hour later, a promising display that almost sent me to the computer to post an alert, collapsed into a faint arc at the bottom of the northern sky. Who let the air of the tires?

The northern lights have much in common with the trickster character of many American Indian myths. He’s the prankster and rule breaker. When we think life is predictable, the trickster keeps us on our toes.

Thanks to a big hole in the sun’s corona (outer atmosphere) a stream of high speed particles is buffeting Earth’s protective magnetic bubble, giving us a chance of auroras. No big storms are expected, but you might want to scan the northern sky around midnight the next couple nights. In the photo above, both the green glow, which was visible with the naked eye, and the much fainter pink, were caused by excitation of oxygen atoms high in Earth’s atmosphere.

A North Korean soldier keeps an eye on things at Sohae Satellite Launch Station. The Unha-3 rocket (background) will carry the Bright Shining Star satellite into space. Credit: AP

Satellite watchers are sitting on pins and needles waiting for the imminent launch of North Korea’s  Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite. Billed as an Earth-observation spacecraft, it would be used to gather weather data and photograph the country’s forest and farmland during its two-year lifetime in orbit. You’re probably more familiar with the backstory that the launch is really about testing ballistic missiles.

The satellite’s name means “Bright Shining Star” and it’s the third in a series that began with Kwangmyongsong-1 in 1998. Although North Korea says the first two launches were successful, no independent observer ever saw them in orbit.

Kwangmyongsong-3 will mark the 100th anniversary of founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by its founder Kim Il Sung. Once in orbit, the satellite will broadcast two patriotic tunes –  “The Song of General Kim Il Sung” and “The Song of General Kim Jong Il.” If the launch succeeds, I’ll post times when it might be visible from your town. UPDATE 7 p.m. CDT: The satellite was launched at 7:39 a.m. Korean time but failed to reach orbit. Story HERE.

Comet Garradd passes through the toes (Theta, Kappa, Iota stars) of one of the Dipper's paws the next few nights. The comet's path is marked every five days. Stars shown to 6.5 magnitude. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

If you have a 6-inch or larger telescope, the next couple nights are ideal for finding the comet observers have been going steady with since last summer –  Comet Garradd. It’s passing through ones of the “paws” of the Great Bear a.k.a the Ursa Major a.k.a. the Big Dipper. It’s faded to 7.5-8 magnitude but I still spotted it last night from a dark sky in 10 x 40 binoculars as a faint, fuzzy glow. The map above is drawn for 9:30 p.m. local time as you face north. Through the telescope, the comet is a fuzzy ball with a brighter center or nucleus. A faint dust tail 1/2 degree long pointing northeast is visible in 10-inch and larger scopes.