Auroras possible for northern U.S. overnight April 11-12

Aurora borealis shot on March 21, 2014 from Mt. Cleary outside of Fairbanks, Alaska with an 8mm fisheye lens. The Big Dipper is at top. Details: ISO 1600, 15-second exposure. Credit: John Chumack

While it’s mostly cloudy at my domicile, the sky above yours may be clear. If you live in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, take a look at the northern sky this early morning April 12. There’s a decent chance you might see the aurora borealis.

The Kp index shot up to “5″ or moderate storm Friday evening when the interplanetary magnetic field bundled up in the sun’s wind took a sharp dip southward. This usually allows the sun’s charged particles to enter Earth’s magnetic domain and spiral down into the upper atmosphere to spark auroras.

The auroral oval sags southward around midnight April 12 in this view based on satellite photos indicating some aurora could be visible in the northern U.S. in the early morning hours Saturday April 12. Credit: NOAA

Both the Ovation Auroral oval map and the POES satellite map of the auroral oval – that band of aurora around either pole – show it spreading southward with the visibility line crossing into northern Minn. and North Dakota.

Time lapse aurora near Fairbanks, AK. on March 26, 2014

There’s no guarantee activity will continue through the early morning hours but as of 1 a.m today (April 12) things look promising. We do have a moon tonight which could hamper viewing of faint auroras, but it’s no match for moderate to strong displays.

No matter what, it’s worth a look if you happen to be up late. Beleaguered by clouds like me? You can still enjoy this sweet video of northern lights made by Ohio astrophotographer John Chumack.

See the space station this week / Jupiter and moon a sparkling sight tonight

One of the Expedition 39 crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed a curtain of aurora hovering over blue twilight over northeastern Kazakhstan recently. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) returns this week to highlight the evening sky. Outside of Venus and the moon, the ISS is the brightest, star-like object in the nighttime sky. It orbits from west to east, the same direction the Earth rotates, and crosses the sky in about five minutes. At an altitude of about 250 miles, the station orbits above most of the auroras we see which is why astronauts get such cool photos of the northern and southern lights from orbit.

Expedition 38 photo of the Kavir Desert in Iran taken with a 200mm lens looks more like swirly water than rock formations. The lack of soil and vegetation allows the geological structure of the rocks to stand out. According to geologists, the patterns result from the gentle folding of numerous, thin, light and dark layers of rock. Later erosion by wind and water cut a flat surface across the folds exposing their internal structure. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The new evening observing season begins for many locations across the northern hemisphere with passes happening once or twice a night. To watch the space station, go out a couple minutes before it’s expected to appear and look for a pale yellow “star” brighter than any other moving from west to east across the sky.

You might be able to also see the Progress 54 cargo craft in the coming week after it undocks with the ISS tomorrow morning and before its destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean on April 18. I’ll have viewing tips and times when they’re available. The departure makes way for the arrival of Progress 55 on April 9, which will deliver almost 3 tons of food, fuel and supplies.

Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev looks at the Earth through the windows of the International Space Station’s cupola this past week. The Expedition 39 crew has been busy with biomedical research this past week focusing on how the immune system responds to living in space. Click to learn more. Credit: NASA-TV

Click HERE or HERE to find times and directions to look for your town. I’ve included a list of times when the ISS will be visible for skywatchers in the Duluth, Minn. U.S. region at the end of this article.

The half moon will be in conjunction with the brilliant planet Jupiter this evening. The map shows the sky facing southwest around 9 p.m. local time. Stellarium

While you’re waiting for the six-man crew of the station to fly over your house or apartment, don’t forget to look up at the first quarter moon in the constellation Gemini tonight. Just “three fingers” or 5 degrees above it shines Jupiter. They’ll make an eye-catching pair for sure.

The moon tonight as seen from North America. How many dark seas or lunar maria (MAH-ree-uh) can you see? Credit: Christian Legrande, Patrick Chevalley / Virtual Moon Atlas

For another easy observing project, try spotting all five of the lunar “seas” visible tonight. These largish, dark spots that form the face of the man in the moon are plains of now-solidified basaltic lavas that erupted 3-3.5 billion years ago in the basins of what were then enormous impact craters. They’re rich in iron and slightly younger than the lighter, older lunar highlands (white regions) which makes them appear darker.

Funny, isn’t it, that all that lunar tranquillity and sweetness should be marred by “crisis”, but I guess this half of the moon serves as a metaphor for life.

Space station viewing times for Duluth, Minn. region:

* Tonight Sun. April 6 starting at 8:29 p.m. Low pass across the south-southeastern sky. Max. elevation: 18 degrees (10 degrees equal one fist held at arm’s length against the sky)
* Mon. April 7 at 9:15 p.m. high across the southern sky. Brilliant pass with max. elevation of 66 degrees
* Tues. April 8 at 8:26 p.m. (high in the south at 42 degrees) and again at 10:03 p.m. across the northwestern sky. Max. elevation: 48 degrees.
* Weds. April 9 at 9:14 p.m. high in the northern sky. Max. elevation: 63 degrees

April Fools’ Night aurora? / Wee crescent ‘smiles’ again in the west

If the aurora does show tomorrow night, it usually begins as a quiet, pale green arc like this one low in the northern sky. Often the arc will double and sprout rays if the display becomes more active. Credit: Bob King

This will probably turn out to be an April Fools’ joke, but space weather forecasters are predicting a 25% chance of minor aurora storms overnight April 1-2 when several particle blasts from the sun are expected to pound on Earth’s magnetic door.

That’s the forecast for skywatchers in mid-latitudes; polar folks will see a 60% chance of a major, sky-filling aurora. Be sure to check the skies starting tomorrow evening. The crescent moon sets early and won’t interfere with even the faintest auroras.

A very thin crescent moon appears low in the western sky this evening about a half hour after sunset. Stellarium

Speaking of the moon, you can watch a one-day-old crescent put on a smile starting about a half hour after sunset tonight March 31. Find a place with a wide-open view to the west northwest and look a short distance above the horizon a most delicate crust of moon.

We see the moon tipped on its back in spring because of the much steeper angle its path makes to the western horizon at dusk compared to fall. The planets, sun and moon all track on or near the same path called the ecliptic, which defines the plane of the solar system. Created with Stellarium

During northern hemisphere spring, the moon’s path across the sky makes a steep angle to the western horizon at dusk. That’s why it’s tipped over on its back and resembles a smile. In early fall, the crescent moon’s path intersects the evening horizon at a very shallow angle, tipping the moon upright on its southern cusp.

February’s crescent moon hovers over a snow-covered road. Credit: Bob King

Later this week, a thicker crescent moon will cross the Hyades star cluster, temporarily blocking up to three of its bright stars. Stay tuned – I’ll post a guide on how to watch it tomorrow.

Quick jaunt to Alaska for last night’s aurora plus a forecast

Mulitple curtains of aurora were at times so bright they turned the snow green. Photo taken last night March 21, 2014 outside Fairbanks. Details: Canon 5D, Mark II, ISO 800 to 3200, 24mm F1.4 Lens, 5 sec to 15 second. Credit: John Chumack

Only skywatchers living in the Arctic witnessed last night’s aurora. All quiet here in the Midwest, where the auroral oval never budged from its comfort zone north of 55 degrees latitude.

Chumack and group watched the aurora dance and sway from 9:30 p.m. until 4:00am. Credit: John Chumack

John Chumack, Ohio astrophotographer, saw the sky go crazy. Last night he led an aurora photo tour and workshop near Fairbanks, Alaska. Tucked well within the oval at 65 degrees N his group witnessed a spectacular display of northern lights.

Plot of the northern auroral oval at 2:21 a.m. Alaska time this morning March 22. The oval extends over the city of Fairbanks but is far from the lower 48. Credit: NOAA

There were no alerts and no surprise electron-proton packages from the sun.Folks living in the far north can see the aurora almost every night of the year because they’re “under” or near the permanent cap of aurora called the northern auroral oval.

There’s also a southern version centered over Antarctica that can expand northward during solar storms to cast curtains of southern lights over southern South America and New Zealand.

Another view of last night’s aurora in a different palette of colors. Credit: John Chumack

Southern and northern ovals are similar in extent during both quiet and stormy times but not identical. Scientists discovered the disparity in data gathered by NASA’s Polar and IMAGE spacecraft (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) when the probes observed both ovals simultaneously in the early 2000s.

Auroral ovals in both northern and southern hemispheres photographed in UV light by the Polar spacecraft. Ovals are ring-shaped areas high in Earth’s atmosphere where high speed particles from the solar wind are directed by the planet’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. Molecules struck by the particles give off light that creates the aurora. Credit: NASA

Come to find out, auroral ovals shift in opposite directions to each other depending on the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF).

The IMF comes entangled in the steady stream of particles from the sun called the solar wind and possesses a magnetic field similar to the one in a simple bar magnet with north and south poles. Sometimes that field point south, sometimes north.

The ovals also shifted in opposite directions depending on how far the north magnetic pole (located in n. Canada) leaned toward the sun, making it easier at times for the solar wind to penetrate Earth’s magnetic bubble in the southern hemisphere than in the northern. This caused the southern oval to shift toward the sun and the northern to stay put.

The Earth’s outer spinning liquid core of metallic iron and nickel creates a magnetic field around the planet much like that around a bar magnet. Solar particles that penetrate the field follow the field lines into the upper atmosphere to spark auroras. The north pole of the magnet is shifted slightly from the geographic north pole. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid

“What was most surprising was that both the northern and southern auroral ovals were leaning toward the dawn (morning) side of the Earth for this event. The scientists suspect the leaning may be related to “imperfections” of the Earth’s magnetic field,” according to a NASA press release on the topic.

Although auroras are firing up again tonight over northern Scandinavia and Siberia, conditions are expected to remain “quiet” across the northern U.S. for at least the next two nights. I always take my forecasts with a grain of salt and pull the curtain back for a look anyway. Surprises are rampant when it comes to this stuff.

Aurora alert for northern U.S. tonight Feb. 27-28

Click image to watch video of the X4.9 flare on Feb. 25 in multiple wavelengths of light / Solar Dynamics Observatory

Lots of movement in the northern lights over Hamburg, Germany this evening Feb. 27-28, 2014. Submitted by Daniel Fischer

A spectacular solar X4.9 solar flare from returning sunspot group AR 1967 on Feb. 25 wasn’t supposed to have much affect on Earth. Surprise! Even though the plasma blast shot off to one side of the sun’s disk, our planet’s magnetic bubble received a glancing blow from the explosion this afternoon. Talk about explosion – swarms of electrons and protons left the sun at an estimated 4.4 million mph!

Still image of the X4.9 flare on Feb. 25. Notice that it’s aimed well off to the left. If it had occurred near the center of the disk, its effects on Earth would be more severe. This flare is the strongest yet this year and one of the strongest in the current sunspot cycle. Credit: NASA

As of 5 p.m. CST, a moderate G2 geomagnetic storm is in progress with strong auroras flaring up over across Europe as far south as southern Germany. Should the activity continue, skywatchers in the northern U.S. and possibly farther south will have a good chance at seeing the northern lights tonight. With no moon present, conditions will be ideal for aurora watching. Start looking as soon as possible after twilight ends this evening.

Click HERE to see the extent of the auroral oval, which will help you determine if northern lights might be visible from your location. I’ll update as needed. Good luck!

A quiet affair. The aurora from north of Duluth, Minn. U.S. Thursday night Feb. 27, 2014. Temperature -30 F. Credit: Bob King

UPDATE 9 p.m. CST: Aurora out here in Duluth as a so-far quiet bright arc low in the northern sky.

Aurora alert Feb. 19-20 – it’s back!

The visibility line of aurora crossed into the northern U.S. around 11 p.m. this evening. This map shows the extant of the auroral oval at around 11:45 p.m. Credit: NOAA

Guess what? Exactly! Magnetic fields in the solar winds are once again favorable for firing up auroras tonight. Although it’s overcast in Duluth, we’ve had one report of patchy northern lights from western Wisconsin, and a minor G1 magnetic storm is in progress.

The auroral oval, a permanent ring of aurora centered on Earth’s geomagnetic poles, has expanded southward in the past couple hours. Observers with clear skies should check the northern sky overnight for rays and arcs as the line of visibility has now crossed into the northern U.S.

The aurora near Billings, Montana Wednesday night. Credit: Ben Chorn

UPDATE 12:30 a.m. CST: Kp=6 / We now have a G2 moderate geomagnetic storm underway.

Northern lights alert Feb. 18-19 – They’re out there!

A complete surprise. I was out with my astronomy class this evening and the northern lights suddenly showed around 8:30 p.m. Sure wish I’d brought a tripod. This photo taken on a monopod. Credit: Bob King

It wasn’t in the forecast but then sometimes the best things aren’t. Let’s just say the aurora is cooking away very nicely across the northern sky with rays to 40 degrees high as of 10 p.m. Some nice curtains near the horizon and even color. I’ve seen obvious pink tops on some of the taller, brighter rays.

The aurora died back around 9:30 p.m. but surged again after 10 o’clock. This photo was taken at 10:30 p.m. CST. when much of the northern sky showed good activity. Credit: Bob King

Even though the waning gibbous moon is up, if you have a chance, check out the northern sky. Moonlight lowers the contrast of the display some, but once your eyes are dark-adapted, there was lots to see (at least from 8:30-10:30 p.m.). Hopefully the display will continue long into the night.

Aurora in the northeastern sky around 10:15 p.m. tonight Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: Bob King

An unexpected passage of a high-speed solar wind gust that happened to be pointing in the right magnetic direction (south Bz) hooked into Earth’s protective magnetic field and sparked the display. The Kp index, which slumbered all day in the low activity, green zone shot up into the red at Kp=5 during the early evening.

You can stay in touch with what the aurora’s doing overnight by clicking on the Kp link above as well as the Ovation auroral oval site which shows the extent of the aurora.

Good luck in your viewing!

Extent of the aurora oval around midnight CST Feb. 18-19. The map, based on satellite data, indicates that aurora should be visible at least across the northern tier states. Credit: NOAA

UPDATE 11:45 p.m. CST: Lots of rays and rayed arcs appearing across the north-northeast up to 45 degrees high. The moon is up higher now reducing contrast but still a fine show.

UPDATE 12:10 a.m. Feb. 19 – Intense, thick green arc slung across the bottom half of the northern sky. Pulses of fainter “flaming” aurora rising to the zenith. Sense that a bright eruption might happen soon.

A singular, colorful auroral ray. Its pink top was obvious with the naked eye. Credit: Bob King

UPDATE Feb. 9 a.m. : The aurora lasted the entire night and peaked around 2-3 a.m. It was still rolling in morning twilight.

Valentine’s Day auroras and a big full moon to boot

Valentine’s Day – and particularly Valentine’s Night – will be special this year. Not only is the moon full, but auroras are in the forecast. Illustration: Bob King

High speed solar blasts that departed the sun on Feb. 11 may combine to deliver a sweet auroral bouquet Friday night. NOAA space weather forecasters predict a 25% chance of minor storms Thursday night, but that rises to 40% Friday night with a 20% chance for a major storm. We’re not talking the high Arctic here – this is the prediction for middle latitudes where we wear less sealskin and more hoodies.

The full moon rises in Leo the Lion not far from its brightest star Regulus Friday night. Click map to find what time the moon rises for your town. Stellarium

Definitely one of the happier auroral forecasts I’ve seen in a while. Friday night’s a big night with lots of Valentine’s fun happening including the Full Snow Moon. Watch for the moon to rise around sunset, cross the south meridian around midnight and set at sunrise the next morning. Might I suggest a walk in the moonlight after dinner with your sweeheart?

While we’d normally be thrilled to have a big moon in the sky, it will put a ding in any auroras that might show. I’ll keep you updated.

The International Space Station will also be making passes of a less passionate sort this week and next. Below are times for the Duluth, Minn. region. Click HERE and HERE for times for your town.

* Tonight Feb. 13 beginning at 7:32 p.m. across the northern sky. Disappears in Earth’s shadow below the North Star a couple minutes later. In binoculars, watch as the ISS fades and turns orange and then red as the sun sets on the ship 250 miles high.
* Fri. Feb. 14 at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.
* Sat. Feb. 15 at 7:32 p.m. across the north. Disappears below the North Star again.
* Sun. Feb. at 6:43 p.m. Bright pass across the north.

Slight chance for auroras tonight across northern U.S.

The aurora seen from Churchill, Manitoba at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre Feb. 7, 2014. Jupiter and Gemini are at top with Orion at lower right. Click to see more photos. Copyright: 2014 Alan Dyer

The aurora has been storming for several nights now at Arctic latitudes but has yet to grace the northern U.S. That may change tonight. This afternoon, aurora activity has generally been high over the Scandinavian countries as a fresh solar wind stream blows across Earth’s magnetosphere.

The Kp index, an indicator of magnetic activity high overhead, hit “5″ (minor storm) and shot back up to “4″ late today. If the trend continues, lights might be seen across northern tier states and southern Canada tonight.

They’ll have to compete with moonlight, but take a look to the north for any activity just in case. If you live in Churchill, Manitoba or Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories your chances of seeing a decent storm are very good.

Big sunspot convulses but all quiet on the aurora front … for now

Sunspot region 1967 is so big it easily popped into view through a “cloud filter” Sunday afternoon Feb. 2. The group is visible with the naked eye properly shielded by a safe solar filter. Details: 350mm lens at f/11, ISO 200 and 1/2000″. Credit: Bob King

What a crazy sunspot cycle. Weeks go by with only a few tiny spots freckling the sun, then all at once a monster group big enough to swallow 10 Earths rounds the eastern limb and we’re back in business. I’m happy to report we’ve got another behemoth snapping and crackling with M-class (moderately strong) flares. That would be Active Region 1967, the hunk a hunk of burnin’ sun we checked out a few days ago.

NOAA weather forecasters predict an 80% chance of continued M-flares and a 50% chance over the next 3 days for considerably more powerful X-class flares. This sunspot group has a delta classification magnetic field, the Facebook equivalent of “it’s complicated”.

Sunspots are made of a dark umbra and lighter penumbra. Very tiny spots with no penumbrae are called pores. A close up of the sun’s photosphere shows a finely granulated texture. Granules are cells of hot gas about the size of Texas that rise from below, cool and sink. Each lasts from 8 to 20 minutes. Credit: NASA

Sunspots have two parts: a dark core (or cores) called an umbra surrounded by a paler skirt of magnetic energy, the penumbra. They can look impressive like this one, but it’s hard to call a sunspot a “thing”. It’s really more of a location on the sun’s bright white photosphere where bundles of powerful magnetic energy bob up from below the surface and insulate a region of the sun’s fiery hydrogen gas from the rest of the flaming globe.

We’re talking insulate as in staying cool. While the photosphere cooks at around 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit, sunspots are some 3,000 degrees cooler. That’s why they appear dark to the eye. If you could rip them away from the sun and see them alone against the sky, they’d be too bright to look at.

Close up of AR 1967 photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory at 6:45 p.m. CST Feb. 3, 2014. The group’s shape reminds me of the Big Dipper. Credit: NASA

A delta-class spot group has umbrae of both polarities, north and south, corralled within the penumbra. Like bringing opposite poles of a two magnets so close they snap together, something similar happens inside delta-class groups. Only instead of a snap, a titanic thermonuclear explosion called a flare goes kaboom.The biggest flares release the equivalent of more than a billion hydrogen bombs.

We thank our lucky stars for the 93 million miles separating sun and Earth. AR 1967 has paraded right in front of our noses as it rotated with the sun. Today it squarely faced the Earth – a good thing when it comes to the particle blasts that fire up the northern lights. Let’s hope it showers us with a magnetic goodness in the coming days. I really miss seeing the aurora. You too?