Magnificent Aurora Thrills Upper Midwest Skywatchers Overnight

This was “round two” of the aurora borealis last night at 11:30 p.m. Just when the aurora appeared to be quieting down,  multiple, bright rays towered back into the northwestern sky.  Credit: Bob KIng

Boy, we got hit last night. When I first saw the aurora doing its crazy moves in twilight  I knew we were in for something special. The northeastern sky – still dusky blue – lit up with multiple rays and arcs. It only got better as darkness settled in; by 11 o’clock stretchy, squirmy rays and pulsing patches of aurora cloaked the entire northern sky. But it didn’t stop there. Brimming with the sun’s energy, snake-like coils wrapped around the zenith and wriggled into the southern sky.

This photo was taken in twilight in a deep blue sky. Look at all those layers of curtains! Credit: Bob King

The show went on and on and on. Right when you thought nature would call it a wrap, the aurora charged up again and raced to the zenith. Finally around 1 a.m. it settled into a quieter dance of diffuse curtains and rays and continued till dawn.

These rays reached beyond the Big Dipper all the way to the zenith (top of the sky). The display was filled with movement; lots of flaming or pulsing lights made it a joy to watch. Credit: Bob King

I’ve included a few photos from the night for you to enjoy. The pictures were taken about 20 miles north of Duluth, Minn. with a Canon 1D Mark III camera using a wide angle 16-35mm zoom lens, aperture f/2.8, ISO 1600 and exposures from 8-20 seconds.

Some of the best moments I can’t show you because the pulsing patches came and went too fast to register much of an impression in the camera. I also seriously need to invest in a fisheye lens to better show the breadth of sky covered by our eyes – this aurora was simply too big!

The aurora appeared mostly pale green to the eye but the camera picked up subtle colors in time exposures. The green band forms from excited oxygen molecules; blue-purple rays likely from excited nitrogen molecules. Credit: Bob King

I hope some of you caught the alert and had access to clear, dark skies to see the northern lights with your own eyes. Space weather forecasters are calling for more minor storms this evening June 7-8. I’m definitely game for a two-fer, sleep or no.

An interesting rayed arc (top) stands above a thick, featureless arc. Credit: Bob King
Cool, bright green rays join the Big Dipper high in the northwestern sky. Rays and patches brightened, disappeared and re-appeared like someone shining a flashlight around a room. Credit: Bob King
The International Space Station buzzed through the scene just when the aurora was brightest around 11:45 p.m. At left is a trail from flashing airplane lights. Credit: Bob King

19 Responses

  1. Nice shots Bob. Skies were clear up here in Thunder Bay too (for a change), and I did manage to get the alerts in time (for a change). I was out observing about 11:30 to 12:30 (Eastern), so based on your comments, I may have packed things in too soon….it was pretty active from 11:30 to 12:00, a full light show all the way up to and past zenith. By 12:30 things settled down (temporarily i guess), but there was a green “aurora haze” that really brightened things up to the north, and washed out any exposure I was doing that was longer than 10s. Thanks for sharing.

    1. astrobob

      TB astronomer (sorry, I forgot your name!),
      The best was here till around the same time, and you’re right, the auroral haze made the whole north glow brightly. Washed out Comet Panstarrs pretty good. At 1:30 though, a nice bunch of fuzzy rayed arcs had formed again in the north.

  2. Elizabeth McCambridge

    Wonderful. Thank you. I have lived in MN for 62 years and have only witnessed the Northern Lights 4 times, once very colorful. We now have a summer home in MT and I’ve already seen them twice this summer. It’s athrill. And your photos are spectacular.

  3. I was down on Brighton Beach starting at 11:30 pm. Had to deal with a few local clouds, but it was beautiful. Sounds like I should have driven north of Duluth!

  4. Edward M. Boll

    Northern lights are now a distant memory for me, not seeing any in years. It has been so over cast lately.

    1. astrobob

      We just went through an overcast, cold and rainy week here too. And we’re headed back in for another, so I was glad for the break last night. Hope you get yours soon.

  5. Daniel Wilczek

    What was the KP index when this happened? Above 4? What is the least KPI where you can still see the Northern lights in Duluth?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Daniel,
      If I recall, the index went to 6 that night. It was high. I’ve sometimes seen aurora when the index was at 3 but typically it needs to be at 4, when you might see northern lights low in the northern sky.

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