I have stars coming out of my ears. I just returned from a weekend of astronomy fun with the Minnesota Astronomical Society at their annual Northern Night Star Fest (NNSF). The multi-day event is held at the Long Lake Conservation Center in northern Minnesota near the tiny town of Palisade. There is very little light pollution and the natural setting is conducive to peace of mind and immersion in nature.
Most nights, the stars came out and made for hours of exploration by the group of about 40 amateur astronomers. Telescopes are set out in a grassy field during the day and allowed to cool down so they’re ready to use when the brightest stars and planets make their first appearance in twilight. Amateur astronomers can be roughly divided into two camps: visual observers and imagers. Of course, some do both. The observers, who mostly hail from big cities, use the time to track down objects otherwise invisible from their homes or take multiple, hours-long time exposures on tracking mounts to create photos that rival those made at big observatories.
To a person, no one in the group expected to get to bed before morning twilight — 4 or 5 a.m. Darkness was not something to be wasted. I lean more to observing so I visited with people who pointed their scopes at Saturn, Jupiter and an assortment of star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. But I also enjoy wide-field astrophotography, a fancy way of saying I like to slide a camera atop a tripod and take starry scenes with wide-angle lenses.
A bunch of us hiked to a nearby field that offered a better view to photograph the aurora Friday night. But we really got juiced up just like you did for last night’s aurora, when a moderate (G2) storm was on tap. An update forecast downgraded the event to a minor G1 storm early in the evening with a G2 well after midnight. No problem. We were there for the duration.
Valts, Kris, Rodrigo and I hiked into the forest over fallen trees, hollows and inconveniently placed rocks toting tripods like a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — off to work we go! Though we were four and more human than dwarf. A barred owl’s repeated calls broke the soft, shrill jingle of katydids. A narrow, chute-like path used by a beaver angled down from the main path and took us to our destination along the shore of Long Lake with a great view of the northern sky.
Hearing us rustle through the grass in his tree takedown zone did not please the beaver, who repeatedly slapped its tail on the water while our shutters quietly clicked. The sound reminded me of someone doing a belly flop. Through occasional clouds we watched the ebb and flow of the auroral show for a couple hours. Occasional bright green arcs made reflections in the still waters as soft, brushy plumes of pink light bloomed in the north and drifted west as if blown by silent winds.
More amazing were the faint bundles or cluster of rays that would suddenly materialize under Polaris (the North Star) and jab and twirl about as they moved rapidly westward. They were so faint and fast I don’t anyone of us was able to freeze their form in our time exposures. By midnight we were damp, chilled and hungry, so we headed back to join the others for the “midnight snack,” a refueling tradition among amateurs at star parties. after snarfing down leftover BBQ ribs and a Mountain Dew I was ready for a second shift.
Back at the lake 45 minutes later, clouds were becoming a problem but incredibly, the unusual STEVE phenomenon put in a brief appearance around 1 a.m. — a stick-like, narrow-focused beam of what looks like aurora. STEVE, which stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, resembles an airplane contrail but despite appearances it’s not an aurora but an atmospheric phenomenon. Picture this: a 16-mile-wide ribbon of hot ionized gas with a temperature of 5,430° F (3000° C) flowing through the ionosphere at 3.7 miles a second (6 km/sec) 280 miles (450 km) overhead. That’s Mr. STEVE. It generally shows up when the aurora is active but it’s not caused by particles from the sun slamming into the atmosphere. Exactly what it is is still under research.
STEVE hung around for about 15 minutes before fading away. The clouds thickened and the merry dwarfs gathered up their tripods and cameras and headed back to the observing field for a few last looks before bed.
Will there be aurora tonight? Yes! I just received the latest forecast which now calls for a minor G1 storm tonight. My location will be cloudy, but if you weren’t able to see the aurora Friday and Saturday it looks like you’ve still got a chance. If you head out to a dark sky spot, hang around and let your eyes get used to the darkness. We spent three hours with the northern lights last night. Never once did it blow up into a bright display but in the end I thought it one of the most interesting shows I’d ever seen.
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