Spectacular aurora! Stay tuned for more

The aurora before midnight was soft-edged and billowy. When this photo was taken shortly before 3 a.m. today, the entire northern sky undulated with tall rays. Credit: Bob King

The blast of solar wind that raked over Earth’s protective magnetic bubble overnight has subsided for the moment, but there’s still a possibility for more auroras tonight. Be on the lookout at the end of evening twilight until around midnight.

A wispy, comet-like aurora high in the southern sky next to the Square of Pegasus around 2 a.m. Credit: Bob King

Speaking of which, there wasn’t much time for sleep last night.  I tried to wind it up, but couldn’t resist checking in on the aurora one more time. Before I knew it, it was 3 a.m. By then undulating rays stretched to the zenith.

That’s how the aurora nails you. It begins slowly then ups the ante. Just when you think a display’s beginning to subside it rages and paints the whole sky. What’s a human to do but look up with mouth agape?

Separate “pieces” of aurora like these red and green patches in the constellation Cetus appeared off by themselves far away from the main display around 10:30 p.m. last night. Credit: Bob King

Early this morning geomagnetic activity reached the G2 moderate storm level on the NOAA scale that ranges from G1 (minor storm) to G5 (major storm). G2 storms are accompanied by auroras visible as far south as New York and fading of shortwave communications. Long-duration G2s can even cause damage to power transformers at high latitudes.

This large, north-south filament tens of thousands of miles long was responsible for last night’s auroral storm. Credit: Big Bear Solar Observatory

There’s no doubt where all this came from: the sun. Last week the sun grew an enormous dark moustache called a filament. Filaments are long troughs of cool, dense hydrogen gas held aloft in the sun’s atmosphere by solar magnetic fields. Against the sun, they’re dark and seen in silhouette, but as the sun rotates, filaments eventually reach the edge of the disk and stick out as brilliant red flames called prominences against the blackness of space. They’re what makes that beautiful red fringe around the sun during a total solar eclipse.

Now-you-see, now-you-don’t. By Sunday evening the shattered bits of the filament were gone , headed toward Earth and acrossthe solar system. Credit: Big Bear Solar Observatory

Filaments normally hang out like tourists in hammocks along a beach front, but every so often those magnetic fields become unstable and either eject the filament or it simply collapses. A portion can “rain” back down to the sun’s atmosphere and reform as a new filament, but sometimes they get shot straight into space or collapse, hurling a coronal mass ejection toward Earth.

Filament eruption caught by the Solar Heliospheric Observatory on Sunday evening Sept. 29 around 6:30 p.m. CDT. Credit: NASA/ESA

That’s what happened Saturday evening Sept. 29 CDT. What had been a peaceful filament minding its own business suddenly got the magnetic boot. The eruption sent bits of pieces of the hot solar gas at hundreds of miles a second across the solar system. Some of that material – what once rested quietly in the sun’s atmosphere – bee-lined into Earth’s upper atmosphere and set off an auroral storm. Pretty cool.

A bright, pale green arc gathers strength low in the northern sky around 11 p.m. last night. Credit: Bob King

I hope some of you got to see it. If you didn’t, the space weather experts predict more for tonight. Despite the U.S. government shutdown, the Space Weather Prediction Center remains open. Click the link to get the latest synopsis and forecast. Good luck!

(Update 10 p.m. CDT: Auroras kicked up again during late afternoon and early evening hours Oct. 2 across the Americas. Observers in Europe, where it was dark, likely had a nice show.)

12 thoughts on “Spectacular aurora! Stay tuned for more

  1. I’m in awe of these pictures. Seeing the Aurora Borealis is my ultimate dream. I live in New Egypt, NJ, the exact center of the state. I’ve been watching the skies since I was a child. I even reported a massive fireball during the Perseids this past August. That was my Holy Grail of sky shows up until now. I keep reading about all of these CME and I’m wondering if it’s at all possible to see any of this glorious light show from down here? Before my Mom died, we were planning an Alaskan cruise and tour of the whole area into Canada. Needless to say, it never came to fruition. I’m wondering if you could tell me the likelihood of me seeing anything from down here. And also, could you suggest places to be and at what times of the year for me to see the Northern Lights? believe it or not, I was in Iceland twice for lay overs and it was daylight both times. Thanks for any help or advice you could give me, as it’s much appreciated.

    • Hi Kerrie,
      Thanks for your comments and story. Yes, it’s possible to see the aurora from New Jersey during a moderate to strong storm and as long as you can find a reasonably dark sky. Fall and spring are often the best times of year.

  2. I looked out at 3:30 this morning. I saw a faint glow. It was so faint that I thought that it might be the light glow from a different town. I have not seen an aurora in over 10 years. I may have seen one this morning.

  3. All these lights stay in place but a day or two ago I seen a huge neon blie thing falling. From the sky I didn’t hear any explosion or hear about it on the news either. It was followed by a light towards the right coming straight down. Right after a light flashed. Around that almost like lightning. I’m in Houston. Texas did anyone else observe this and if so what the hell was it

  4. Aloha Astro Bob and Everyone!
    Ever notice how “still” pics of the “Northern Lights” simply don’t do it justice. Don’t get me wrong, they are STILL unbelievably beautiful but still becomes even MORE beautiful when seeing them “in person”. Some of my most profound and/or “life-altering” moments was when I’d be walking home at midnight (or later) on a Friday night and only being 15/16 years old in JANUARY, on a -10 degree Fahrenheit night with NO MOON…something would just come over me if I looked up and saw those beautiful (there is NO other word for it!) lights. I’d simply look for a soft, “freshly” made snowbank or deep snow and plop on my back and be taken completely away.
    At that point in my life, my high school and friendship life was going as good as I’d ever expect. I can’t even begin to explain all the wonderful thoughts and simply “cosmic” type of thoughts while watching the “dance” of the lights… not just black and white, but in COLOR and the colors change! Only just learning about them and knowing nearly nothing about them, I was “hooked” on astronomy. I lived in a newly created suburb of Minneapolis then and my walk took me along some great stretches of meadows/woods and fields, so the street lights were few and far between (as compared to NOW).
    Being THAT cold and THAT quiet and THAT intense and THAT active…it was one of those “actual reality” type moments…ok…I’m getting existential here, please forgive me. ;-}
    Mahalo for the GREAT article and pics.
    Yep, I still visit (and read) your site. You’re a good man, Astro Bob!
    Aloha For Now!

  5. as far as i know i have never seen, or at least noticed, an aurora, tho i haven’t really been keeping track of spaceweather for more than a year now. seems like i missed an opportunity (from MA) earlier this week (tho i am usually in urbanish locations which puts a crimp on these possibilites). the actual reason that i wanted to comment is that pics of aurorae, while beautiful, at times kinda frustrate me. because it’s hard for me to judge what is actually visible to the naked eye, i.e. what to expect to see if i were to ever actually see a display. since to get these nice, colorful, bright pix photographers use long exposures and who knows what other techniques which brighten the pix considerably compared to what they actually look like. i’m sure it makes the pix look nicer but it makes me wonder what the scene ACTUALLY looked like and i bet a lot of people who have only seen aurorae thru them might have unrealistic expectations of what they look like. kinda had a similar situation with PANSTARRS earlier this year, since near its brightest tons of people were posting pix but i was always wondering whether it was visible at those times naked-eye, and what its approximate magnitude was, which sometimes people were kind enough to leave in descriptions.

    • Sean,
      Excellent points about the aurora. It REALLY can look the way it does in photos or even better because photos don’t capture the wild movement in many auroras. Most photos I shoot of the aurora have to be brightened somewhat to capture details that would otherwise be lost and that were visible with the eye. Unless you’re careful though, it’s easy to go too bright and make the photo look like the second coming. Most auroras are pale green to white with the naked eye with occasional faint reds (though sometimes the reds can become very intense) visible near the ray tops. The deep, amazing reds in many photos are generally not visible with the naked eye but since the camera accumulates light in time exposures, photographers can’t help but record more intense colors all around, especially reds. This last aurora was amazing in that the reds were very intense photographically but nearly invisible to the eye.

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