Majestic Auroras And Moon-planet Trio Thrill Sky Watchers

The aurora saved its most colorful act for dawn, when the moon – along with Jupiter (top) and Venus – rose over Lake Superior as seen from Duluth’s Brighton Beach. Details: 24mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 1600 and 5-second exposure. Photo: Bob King

Full of surprises. That’s how I’d describe last night’s spectacular geomagnetic storm. From the breakup and expansion of a quiet auroral arc at midnight to the explosion of bright rays  and pulsating lights at 2:30 to dawn’s majestic coda of moon and planets.

The show reminded me of major storms of the past in for its variety of forms, brilliance, duration and even color. Yes, color. Whites and pale greens ruled, but purple-pinks made their appearance around 2:40 a.m. and a vivid “last hurrah” of pink curtains swept by the moon during twilight.

Look at the difference in the auroral oval, a permanent feature of Earth’s upper atmosphere,  before the storm early on the 14th, and at 5 a.m. (CDT) this morning when it was raging. The oval represents the extent of the aurora and expands when charged up by solar wind particles, mostly electrons. Credit: NOAA

I forget his name now, but a stranger I met on the road this morning who made the trip after finishing work at midnight kept repeating: “I’ve never seen them like this. Incredible.” We stared up till our necks hurt.

Colorful pale pink-purple and green rays stretch like taffy to the zenith during the display’s peak for Duluth around 2:45 a.m. this morning. Photo: Bob King

One thing that really sinks in when you’re watching the northern lights is how touched we are by the sun. Sure, it’s 93 million miles away, but not last night. Billions of its electronic emissaries were up there tickling the air until it fluoresced green and purple with delight. We are fortunate to live at a time when we can point to the aurora’s cause. Storms from this week’s big sunspot came home to roost right here on Earth.

A long rayed arc lights up below the Big Dipper early this morning seen from Rice Lake Township. Photo: Bob King

Another thing about the aurora and something many of you may have experienced last night. On several occasions it “felt” like the display was winding up, settling down. You thought maybe you could finally go to bed. Uh … no. After each lull, the show would regather its momentum and flare to a new peak. Even at 4:30 a.m., curtains billowed in the eastern sky with tall rays, now fading in twilight, still lancing across the northern sky.

The moon-Venus-Jupiter conjunction was a sweet ending to a long night under the scintillating lights. Photo: Bob King

As if the aurora wasn’t enough, the cherry on the sundae was the rising of the crescent moon accompanied by Jupiter, Venus and Aldebaran. The moon seemed the center of an clock with the big hand pointed at Jupiter and the little hand at Venus.

Will we see more aurora tonight? I’ll let you be the judge. NOAA space weather forecasters  predict a small chance for minor storms from effects of the coronal mass ejection fired off by last Thursday’s big X-class flare.

The Kp index has been in the red at “5” or higher all day. That gives me hope we’ll be in for chapter two of this tale tonight.

I’ll be back out if it’s clear and hope you’ll do the same.

For more photos of the aurora, click HERE. If motion’s your thing, check out this sweet video time lapse by Matthew Moses of Cloquet, Minn. Here’s another time lapse made by my colleague Andrew Krueger at the Duluth News Tribune.

Dan Staley photographed the conjunction from his driveway in Aurora, Colo. The neighborhood great horned owl took exception to his presence and swooped over him to express his displeasure as he flew to a new perch.
Subtle hints of pink and blue are mixed into the overall green aurora photographed in Solway Township north of Cloquet, Minn. Pinks and greens are caused by oxygen molecules excited by solar wind particles. Credit and copyright: Matthew Moses

13 Responses

    1. astrobob

      Dan and Olivier,
      Thanks guys. Let’s hope for more tonight. You’re right about the data, Olivier. Looks promising.

  1. Great post – amazing photos. I got chills reading this sentence: “One thing that really sinks in when you’re watching the northern lights is how touched we are by the sun.”

  2. john

    Bob… can you please keep us updated tonight on whether the aurora will be out again… I missed last night but am planning a drive up tonight if they are still out

    1. astrobob

      Hi John,
      Yes, I plan to. Right now it looks rather good for “round two”. One thing about tonight in Duluth – the forecast doesn’t look very promising. Cloudy skies are predicted till about 1 a.m.

  3. Bruce

    Gave up at midnight:(. Had to work in the morning. Now I see I missed quite a show. To bad we can’t know what time they will show up — early or late???

    1. astrobob

      Bruce,
      They can forecast typically within a +/- 7 hour range. That means you could easily miss a display because it occurred before sunset or after sunrise. Also, it’s hard to forecast the various peaks of activity once the aurora gets started. Rule of thumb is that it’s most active around midnight (standard time) or 1 a.m. daylight.

  4. Jim Egstad

    Thanks for the photos…I slept through it…….but not tonight!

    BTW…..thank you for your website. I don’t come here often enough!

    Jim

  5. Edward M. Boll

    Because L4 Panstaars 2011 is brightening so precisely. I am going to take a dare and up my guess at brightest to 2-3 tenths of a magnitude brighter than -3 in March of 2013.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      I can only hope you’re right. I tend to be more skeptical about predicted comet magnitudes until it gets closer to perihelion.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Karen,
      Thank you! Yes, you can purchase a copy by going to duluthnewstribune.com, scrolling down to the blue Quick Clicks box and selecting the Buy a Photo link.

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