Mambo borealis – a little bit of green in my life

The Big Dipper reposes above a low arc of northern lights at 1:30 this morning. While prospects for the aurora are small tonight and tomorrow, activity is expected to pick up again Thursday the 20th. Click photo for a tuneful treat. Photo: Bob King

The north smoldered with a familiar glow last night. A restrained aurora lit up the bottom five degrees of sky a pale lime. Hidden to the eye but revealed in a time exposure, a band of pink haze arched above the visible display.

Space weather forecasters call for a pickup in auroral activity later this week on or about Thursday when gusty solar winds from coronal holes arrive. Let’s hope so. It’s been too quiet around here.

Material from a coronal hole (outlined) streams outward across the solar system. When aimed toward Earth, it can buffet our magnetic field and cause auroras. At right is a graph showing the number of geomagnetic storms (auroras) from 1875 to 1927 compiled by NASA solar physicist David Hathaway. There are clear peaks in March and September-October. Credit: NASA

Fall and spring are usually the best times for northern lights. The orientation of Earth’s magnetic field to the blobs of magnetized material streaming from the sun make it more likely the two will connect. When they do, ┬ásolar electrons and protons stream straight into our planet’s magnetic bubble and spark auroras in the upper atmosphere. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Read more about seasonal auroras HERE.

This map shows the sky 20 minutes after sunset for the northern U.S. Binoculars will show Mars and possibly Saturn. Created with Stellarium

Tonight the 3-day-old crescent moon should be easily visible in the southwestern sky shortly after sunset. If you’d like a fun challenge, see if you can find Mars and Saturn nearby. I doubt most of us will spy them with the naked eye, but binoculars should do the job. Mars will be easier because it’s higher up in a darker sky. Saturn? Could be tricky.

If you’re an early morning person, you can catch plenty of passes of the International Space Station (ISS) this week. The times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, type in your zip code on Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page or log in to Heavens Above. The ISS travels from west to east and looks like a brilliant yellow star.

* Wednesday Sept. 19 starting at 5:13 a.m. Brilliant high pass across the top of Orion
* Thursday Sept. 20 at 6 a.m. Another bright one but this time across the northern sky
* Friday Sept. 21 at 5:13 a.m. Appears out of Earth’s shadow high in the west and then crosses the top of the sky
* Saturday Sept. 22 (First day of fall) at 6 a.m. in the northern sky
* Sunday Sept. 23 at 5:13 a.m. in the northern sky

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