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.