Alien auroras and other curiosities of the night

This isolated green patch of aurora slowly brightened and faded for many minutes at nightfall last night June 3. This smooth, slow-pulsating form of aurora is uncommon. Photo: Bob King

Last the night was that perfect one hoped for by all stargazers. Calm weather, no clouds or bugs and a sky jammed with too many stars to count. Even the usual atmospheric turbulence that blurs planets and mushes out star images took a hike for the night.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on June 1. The brighter head and at least several degrees of its long tail are still visible faintly in 10×50 binoculars. Views in 10-inch or larger telescopes are amazing. PANSTARRS is currently smack dab in the middle of Little Dipper not far from Polaris (bright star at right).

I drove out to the lonely lands north of Duluth, Minn. and set up the telescope for a look at many things – comets (PANSTARRS was freaking amazing with its long, faint tail), Saturn, star clusters and nebulae. But the one thing that vied for my attention all night long was a curious species of aurora that resembled a sausage, or if you’re into extraterrestrials, an alien spaceship.

The sausage materialized during late twilight below the Little Dipper in the northern sky. Nothing above it, nothing below – just this strange, smooth, lime glow about two fists wide. For the next hour it played hide-and-seek, fading away and reappearing like breath on a mirror.

Wide angle view of the eastern sky showing the Milky Way in the Northern Cross and a second smaller patch of isolated aurora around 11:30-midnight last night. Photo: Bob King

By 11:30 it was nearly gone. That was about the time another smaller patch fired up low in the northeastern sky. This apparition took its time, morphing into a second green sausage centered under the familiar W of Cassiopeia by 1 a.m.

A second glowing patch gathers strength below the constellation Cassiopeia in the northeastern sky early this morning. Photo: Bob King

Meanwhile, the International Space Station, basking in sunlight for its entire orbit the next week, passed by twice. One the first run at 11:50, it sliced right through the aurora before disappearing over the eastern horizon.

The International Space Station (ISS) crosses the northern sky this morning at 1:23 a.m. The aurora had faded and spread into streaks by that time. Photo: Bob King

By the time of the second pass at 1:23 a.m. the patches were fading and spreading. On this pass I once again enjoyed a view of the space station and its picturesque solar panels by following it through the telescope. Giorgio Rizzarelli of Italy sent a photo that shows very well how the ISS looks through a typical telescope if you’re fast enough to grab a look.

The ISS through an 8-inch scope on May 21, 2013. Rizzarelli shares that he could just make out the solar panels in his 9-power finderscope. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

At 2 a.m. it was time to head home and get some sleep. Driving out, I noticed my gas warning light go on, which usually means 3 gallons left in the tank. No problem, I thought. The total distance would come to fewer than 40 miles. That’s not how it worked out. Six miles from the front door, the car briefly lost power but then fired up again. One mile later I was out of gas.

The ISS passes over the aurora shortly before midnight last night. Since the station orbits 250 miles high, it was most likely well above this shard of northern lights. Photo: Bob King

Unlike the aurora, which kept surging back to life, my ride wasn’t going anywhere. I’m grateful for my wonderful wife, who drove out in the middle of the night to meet me with a gas can. Thank you honey.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

12 thoughts on “Alien auroras and other curiosities of the night

  1. Hi Bob,
    I was reading an article in my local paper today, and it was talking about a dying star called WR104 which is a binary star system comprised two massive stars engaged in an orbiting death dance (which you will probably know that anyway), it goes onto saying that it was discovered in 1998, and that there has been arguments back and forth as to whether it has us in its sights, and two astronomers in Hawaii have suggested we could be better aligned with the so-called ‘Death Star’s’ poles, when we look at it from earth we appear to be seeing it face on, meaning the poles could be pointing our way.
    Although the star could go boom anytime in the next 500,000 years any gamma beam it produces will be so focused that even a misalignment of a few degrees would see the beam sail harmlessly by.
    What do you think of all this Bob, is there no way that we would know it was going to do that or is it done in an unexpected way, and what do you think the chances of this happening in our lifetime, seems a bit scary.
    Sorry its a bit long, but thanks :)

    • Lynn,
      There are lot of ifs about this massive binary star system. One of the two stars MIGHT become a powerful, gamma-ray burst supernova; then again, it might become an ordinary supernova, in which case we have nothing to worry about. If it does blow up and send out a pulse of gamma rays, they may or may not be aimed toward Earth. Finally, the star could blow tomorrow or in tens of thousands of years. Also remember that both the binary and Earth aren’t standing still but moving at different rates of speed around the galaxy’s center, making a lineup less likely. Let’s say worst case scenario, it blasts out a jolt of gamma rays and everything’s lined up precisely, then yes, the explosion would cause damage to Earth’s atmosphere and could have profound negative effects.
      There is no way to predict when or if this might happen. Since it’s just a possibility, I wouldn’t let it put a hurt on your day.

  2. I will try and not let it worry me as life has uncertainty’s anyway and it could be a worry for nothing, just a pity though that we can’t know for certain when it could happen, but just something we have to deal with. Thanks Bob :-)

  3. We just drove to South Carolina and the mountains of Tennessee, 3425 miles driven. I am glad that we did not run out of gas. Speaking of Panstaars with it’s tail, what about Lemmon. I believe that it is still around magnitude 7.5?

    • Hi Edward,
      Hope you had a wonderful trip. Glad you asked about Lemmon. It’s brighter than PANSTARRS by maybe half a magnitude – at least the coma. Very dense, still pale green and about 5′ across. Now that the comet’s up before dawn, I finally got a good look at its tail – a broad, dim fan to the south-southwest

  4. Hello Bob! For us night sky photographers wanna-be’s please share the particulars of your “stellar” images shown! ;*) Thank you! Great shots!
    Mike T.

    • Hi Mike,
      They were taken at various focal lengths between 20-35mm, f/2.8, ISO 800 to 1600. Exposure times varied too. Most were around 50 seconds.

  5. It looks like ISON will drop out of view for a couple months. I wonder what will it appear like at recovery in August.

  6. Thank you! I would LOVE to be able to produce images like you do of the aurora and the night sky. Do need a significant amount of post-exposure processing? You use a Canon 1d correct? Thanks for your work and your replies! Any additional tips or ideas or links on night photography would be greatly appreciated! Do you know what your schedule for the summer is as far as presentations etc? An email would be great.
    Thanks again!
    Take care.
    Mike

    • Hi Mike,
      I do use a 1D and do very little processing on aurora photos. I brighten them up some and might set a color balance if light pollution’s involved. High-end cameras like the D1 and Nikon equivalent are essential for clear, nice resolution night photos. Mid-level cameras do OK but they typically have grainier images.

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