A stream of high-speed particles from a coronal hole on the sun is blowing by Earth tonight and causing an uptick in auroral activity across Canada. Some of that appears to be spilling into the northern U.S. at this hour, so keep an eye out for a green glow or low arcs spanning the north if your sky is clear. We’re cloudy here in Duluth, Minn. so no first-hand report.
2014 begins with a chance to spy an exceptionally thin crescent moon shortly after sunset and possibly the shimmer of aurora at nightfall.
The moon’s age is determined by how many hours or days have passed since new moon phase. New moon occurs once a month when the moon lies in nearly the same direction as the sun in the sky. No one can see a new moon because it stays very close to the sun and hides in the glare of daylight.
Under favorable circumstances it’s not too difficult to spot a 1-day-old moon, referred to as a young moon because it’s the first or youngest bit of moon we see after new moon. Young moons are delicate, faint and tucked far down in the twilight glow shortly after sunset.
Spotting a moon fewer than 24 hours old requires planning. You need a flat horizon, haze-free skies and a pair of binoculars. Being on time’s important, too. Be sure to arrive at your observing spot shortly before sundown. Knowing the point on the horizon where the sun sets will guide you to the crescent’s location.
Venus – still visible low in the southwestern sky at dusk – will also be a big help tonight. It’s perfect for getting a sharp focus with your binoculars, essential for seeing the faint lunar crescent clearly. The planet hovers some 7-8 degrees to the moon’s upper left. When you focus on it, you’ll be in for a surprise. I wish I could tell you, but that would spoil the fun.
New moon occurred at 5:14 a.m. (CST) today, making tonight’s crescent approximately 12 hours old for skywatchers in the Midwest. Since the moon’s orbit carries it moves east of the sun its own diameter every hour, skywatchers in the western U.S. will have a somewhat easier time of seeing it. From Denver, the moon will be 13 hours old, San Francisco 14 hours and Hawaii 16 hours.
Given that the record for the earliest naked eye sighting of the moon after (or before) new phase is 15 hours 32 minutes and the earliest binocular/telescope observation is 11 hours 40 minutes, most of us will need some kind of optical aid to spy tonight’s silvery sliver.
I recommend a pair of binoculars in the 35mm-50mm range with a generous field of view. Oh, and don’t forget your heavy coat and boots for warmth. Locales with open horizons are generally the windiest places in the world.
Here’s a checklist of what you’ll need:
* Figure out your sunset and moonset times HERE. That way you’ll know exactly when and for how long to watch.
* Thank your lucky stars if the sky is extremely clear and without haze or clouds in the southwest direction.
* Arrive no later than sunset, face toward the direction of sunset and focus your binoculars or telescope on Venus, that brilliant “star” you’ll see about 1 to 2 fists high in the southwestern sky.
* Start looking for the moon 10 minutes after sunset by slowly sweeping the sky just a few degrees above the sunset point. Continue to look for the next 25 minutes giving your eyes an occasional rest and checking focus. You’ll be looking for the thinnest of the thin, no more than a partial arc scratched across the deepening blue.
* If you spy the moon in binoculars, carefully lower them and try to find the moon with your naked eye.
Whether you have success of not, I welcome anyone who attempts this observing challenge to share your observation in our comments section. Good luck to you!
Later this evening and tomorrow as well, there’s a chance that a high-speed stream of particles cut loose from a coronal hole – a open magnetic portal in the sun’s corona that allows electrons and protons to flow freely into space – could kick-start minor auroras at high latitudes. Sometimes that means folks living in southern Canada and along the U.S. northern border can see them too.
The sun has recently been more active with an M-class flare yesterday from the 1936 group and the potential for more. Be on the lookout this evening and next for a small display. With little to no moon in the sky, these are good times to look for auroras.
My meters, graphs and gauges indicate a chance for northern lights overnight for the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Although the official forecast doesn’t sound promising, the Kp index, an indicator of magnetic activity overhead, is in the yellow zone (Kp=4) and satellite plots of the auroral oval show it spreading across Canada and pushing southward toward the U.S. border. This as of 10:30 p.m. CDT.
Either a coronal mass ejection – an outburst of high speed subatomic particles from the sun – or a stronger than usual gust of solar wind from a coronal hole is behind the enhanced activity. Coronal holes are open regions in the sun’s atmosphere not buckled down by solar magnetism. Strong winds of electrons and protons can flow from the holes and spark auroras on Earth.
Unfortunately I can’t do a sky check here in Duluth because the only thing pouring from my sky tonight is rain. Chances for more auroras continue through tomorrow evening Oct. 15-16. As always, keep an eye.
Keep watch on the sky tonight if you live in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. The aurora may make an appearance thanks to a brush with gusty solar winds blowing from a coronal hole, an opening in the sun’s magnetic canopy.
Activity kicked up to minor storm level (Kp=5) this afternoon spreading auroras across the northern parts of Scandinavia. After a slight dip in the action early this evening, activity may pick up again tonight. Or not. Take a look and let us know if anything shows.
* Update 12:30 a.m. — An auroral arc hung around all evening low in the northern sky seen from Duluth, Minn. US. I never saw any rays, but the camera revealed subtle parallel rays in the arc.
With only a slight chance for auroras overnight Aug. 13-14 I was surprised to catch a decent little show starting around 11:30 p.m. The display peaked about midnight-12:30 a.m. this morning August 14 and then settled back to a quiet arc. That’s where it stands now at 2 a.m. CDT, If your skies are clear it would be worth a look in case activity picks up.
I almost posted an alert before leaving for the countryside to view Neptune and a new comet but all looked quiet at the time. When I arrived, a pale whitish arc hung low in the north. Not 10 minutes later the arc burst into rays that reached 20-30 degrees high. Some were very bright, other like faint fingers.
My eyes saw pale green and maybe hints of red, but time exposures with the camera recorded spectacular colors. The likely cause for this show of northern lights is the early arrival of streams of faster-moving solar particles flowing from a large coronal hole in the sun’s northern hemisphere.
Since so many of you have been out watching the Perseid meteor shower, I’m hoping you caught this surprise gig. Speaking of which, I saw a half dozen shower members this morning and was hardly even trying. The space weather forecast calls for “active” conditions the next couple nights, one level below “minor storm”. I’ll keep you posted.
Skywatchers in the northern U.S., Canada and across the Scandinavian countries may have a shot at seeing a modest display of northern lights tonight through tomorrow night. Streams of high-speed solar material flowing from a hole in the sun’s magnetic canopy are expected to arrive later tonight prompting the Space Weather Prediction Center to forecast a G1 geomagnetic storm or in plain English, minor auroras at higher latitudes.
Coronal holes are a regular feature of the sun’s fiery hot atmosphere. Normally, magnetic fields are closed loops that lock down the sun’s gases; holes are regions where the fields open directly into space. Released from their magnetic shackles, electrons and protons in the sun’s atmosphere stream freely into space.
The solar wind, a dilute soup of electrons and protons, normally blows by the planet at 250 miles per second (400 km/s) but coronal holes send tempests with speeds up to 500 miles per second (800 km/s). When a good-sized hole develops and the sun’s rotation brings it into line with Earth, our protective magnetosphere can gets a pounding.
Speedy particles can squeeze or directly enter the magnetosphere and spark auroras.
I’m often asked where’s the best place to see the aurora. The simple answer is to go north. The further poleward you live, the better your chances of seeing northern lights. In the northern border states auroras occur with regularity around the time of solar maximum, when the sun peaks in storm activity. The current solar max – the least stormy since 1906 – happens this summer.
There’s another consideration. Since the aurora forms a ring centered on the geomagnetic poles rather than on the geographical north and south poles, your chances for spotting it improve if you’re closer to the geomagnetic pole.
For instance, both Denver, Colo. and Madrid, Spain have nearly the same 40 degrees north latitude, but Denver’s in a much better location for an occasional auroral visit because the magnetic pole resides on the “North American side” of the globe.
You can predict the likelihood of northern lights for your location by finding your magnetic latitude. This is much like your regular latitude but as it relates to the magnetic pole instead of the geographic pole. Returning to our example, the magnetic latitude of Madrid is 33 degrees while that of Denver is 48. As far as the aurora is concerned, Denver’s much farther north and in a better position to see a display.
I’m always chattering on here about the Kp index, an indicator of geomagnetic or potential auroral activity. It’s rated on a scale of 0 to 9 and updated every 3 hours. The typical threshold for seeing the aurora from Duluth, Minn. (magnetic latitude 56 degrees) is a “4″. If you live in central Canada or northern Norway it can be as low as “3″ or “2″.
Another activity level indicator is the POES satellite auroral index rated from 1 to 10+. Here in Duluth, when the level reaches “8″ chances are good we’ll see at least a little green haze off to the north. For Denver it has to climb to “10+”.
The space weather people have put together a very useful Aurora Tips page you can use to find your own magnetic latitude. A table and drop-down menu list a number of cities, but if you can’t find yours, click on one of the four Kp maps below and then click on your location to get your number. All the maps are also available on the Tips page:
With magnetic latitude in hand, you can now use the tables on the site to know at what level the POES and Kp indices need to reach for you to justify losing sleep for the northern lights. Bear in mind that all these methods are indicators only and don’t absolutely guarantee you will or won’t see northern lights. Other factors like moonlight, weather nature’s unpredictability are always at play.
With the moon now past full and rising late, let’s cross our fingers the aurora will pay a visit soon.
If you live along northern border of the U.S. and points north, there’s a 25% chance you’ll see a minor auroral storm tonight through tomorrow morning. Chances are 70% for a major storm at high latitudes across Canada and Alaska.
I suspect I’d see a glow along the northern horizon here in Duluth, Minn. right now (11 p.m.) if the sky were clear. Sadly, we’re socked in. A speedy blast of solar wind pouring from an opening in the sun’s magnetic field called a coronal hole is responsible for the enhanced activity. Take a look outside before going to bed tonight just in case.
Just got in from walking the dog and noticed a bow of aurora low in the northern sky. Northern lights also simmered quietly last night late in the north. Tonight’s NOAA space weather forecast predicts possible auroras for the northern U.S. particularly tomorrow night through Sunday morning Oct. 14. The activity originates from a high-speed stream of particles released by a solar coronal hole. If your sky is clear to the north, give a look before you snug down for the night.
First let’s check in on the aurora. Last night’s display continued well into the morning hours. Our sky clouded after 11:30 p.m. but I’m not complaining. The few openings were enough to relish the lively show.
Chances look good again tonight and tomorrow night for at least minor storms. While the effects of the coronal mass ejection (CME) are waning, reinforcements are now coming from an Earth-directed coronal hole. The holes or openings in the sun’s otherwise zippered up magnetic field allow charged particles like electrons and protons to escape and stream outward into space at high speed. When they flow past our planet, they can sometimes stimulate auroras. Yes, Earth’s getting a pounding … and we love it! I’ll update later this evening.
How about those Draconid meteors? I never saw any. Few reports from other observers around the world have come in to confirm visually what the Canadian radar recorded yesterday. Evidently the meteors nabbed by radar were too small to leave trails bright enough for the naked eye to see. According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, a strand of dust shed by the shower’s parent comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1959 was responsible for the sudden and brief jump in meteors.
We won’t have to wait long for the next meteor shower, the reliable Orionids brought to us by Halley’s Comet. That one peaks on the mornings of Oct. 20-22. No moon will mar the view.
While the Curiosity Rover jitterbugged its first soil sample to make sure the scoop free of Earth contaminants, its cameras spotted a small, shiny object embedded in the Martian soil. It could be metallic and possibly a piece of hardware or even tape that got loose and dropped to the ground. Mission controllers are suspending soil sampling for the time being as they position the rover’s cameras for a better look. We’ll have an update later today especially if it turns out to be a bolt left behind by an early Martian mechanic.
Tomorrow we’ll have times when you can watch the space station link up with the latest Dragon supply ship launched earlier this week by SpaceX.