Weird “teardrop” aurora airbrushes the first night of spring

Peculiar teardrop-shaped auroral patch in the northwestern sky this evening near the Pleiades star cluster (upper left). Credit: Bob King

Peculiar teardrop-shaped auroral patch in the northwestern sky this evening near the Pleiades star cluster (upper left). The aurora slowly pulsated in brightness. Credit: Bob King

Just got back from looking at some pretty weird northern lights. A bright teardrop-shaped patch glowed alone low in the northwestern sky around 10:30-11 p.m. 10 minutes later, another oval patch mysteriously appeared in the north. The two swelled in size and length and almost appeared to join … but didn’t . Instead, the teardrop faded away while the oval brightened. Then it slowly disappeared. When I last looked, the oval had returned but was fainter.

The teardrop on the left and oval to the right. Each slowly pulsed, fading and brightening. Credit: Bob King

The teardrop on the left and oval to the right. Each slowly pulsed, fading and brightening. Credit: Bob King

To look at the aurora indicators we’ve tapped into the past few nights — the  Kp index and auroral oval — you’d think there’d be no reason to don hat and coat and go aurora-hunting on cold, windy night. Both indicators are nearly flat, having dropped from minor storm level during the late afternoon (CDT). Yet Earth magnetic bubble keeps on jiggling, shaking out some peculiar forms of aurora.

A closer look at the featureless northern lights oval seen around 11 p.m. in the northern sky. Credit: Bob King

A closer look at the featureless northern lights oval seen around 11 p.m. in the northern sky. Credit: Bob King

One hint that solar excitement still lingers in Earth’s vicinity comes from the live information sent to us by the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, which taps into the Sun’s wind a million miles upstream of our planet. Around 10:30 p.m. (CDT), ACE recorded a southward dip in the magnetic field embedded in the solar wind – perfect for linking into Earth’s field and firing up auroras.

As always, it’s hard to know how long these “glows” may last, but if you’re out, don’t be surprised if you see them. We’re now at five nights in a row and counting for northern lights displays this week. Looks like we’re in for more. The forecast calls for yet another G1 geomagnetic storm Saturday evening (March 21) from about 7-10 p.m. CDT.

Northern lights recap and planning for the next show

Northern Lights over Caribou Lake, Minn. by Guy Sander of Duluth, Minn.

How to describe last night’s northern lights? Grand expectations – brief but spectacular display around 9:30 p.m. – long lull till nearly midnight – second blast low in the sky around midnight.

Aurora over an ice-covered lake north of Duluth last night March 17. Credit: Bob King

Aurora over an ice-covered lake north of Duluth last night March 17. Credit: Bob King

If you lived near city lights or in an area where there were trees to your north, you might have wondered what all the fuss was about. At best, you may seen just a big glow in the northern sky. Most of the action from mid-northern latitudes was low enough that buildings, hills and trees would have blocked the view.

Aurora seen over Lake Superior from Wisconsin Point in Superior, Wis. around 11:55 p.m. Credit: Matthew Moses

Aurora seen over Lake Superior from Wisconsin Point in Superior, Wis. around 11:55 p.m. Credit: Matthew Moses

There are two key things to plan in advance of an aurora – a place with a wide open view of the northern sky and one where there are no concentrations of city lights in that direction. When a display is imminent, drive to that spot, watch and wait. I nearly missed last night’s peak because of a commitment till 9. On the way out, the sky broke loose with brilliant, rippling rays while I was still in the car. Luckily I arrived in time to see part of the great unfurling.

Of course, you may get skunked. Either by clouds or a disappointing show. But the longer you hang in there, the better your odds of being present when the sky cuts loose. I try to look at the up side. Even if no aurora appears, the company of the stars, the occasional meteor and sounds of the night are always a welcome break from work or sitting around the house.

Auroras may poke out again tonight. The forecast calls for a G2 geomagnetic storm with any northern lights reaching as far south as New York and Idaho. Last night’s show was visible as far south as southern New Jersey and perhaps further.

Beautiful rays returned at midnight seen here over Boulder Lake north of Duluth, Minn. Credit: Clint Austin

Beautiful rays returned at midnight seen here over Boulder Lake north of Duluth, Minn. Credit: Clint Austin

Aurora colors always fascinate. All the green and most of the reds you see are caused by oxygen atoms in our atmosphere. When high-speed particles from the Sun come racing down Earth’s magnetic fields lines towards the geomagnetic poles, they eventually strike the upper atmosphere anywhere from about 70 to 200 miles overhead. There they strike and transfer their energy to oxygen and nitrogen atoms. As the atoms return to their “rest states” they release the energy as tiny zaps of green and red light called photons.

Nature is so generous it swells me up inside. Good luck to you with clear skies in your forecast tonight.

Aurora’s out tonight as forecast – take a look!

After all the mush, a gorgeous outbreak of the northern lights around 9:30 p.m. (CDT) this evening. Here the lights are reflected off the ice in a lake north of Duluth, Minn. Credit: Bob King

After all the mush, a gorgeous outbreak of the northern lights around 9:30 p.m. (CDT) this evening. Here the lights are reflected off the ice in a lake north of Duluth, Minn. Credit: Bob King

Good news! So far the forecast has been accurate. The aurora’s out right now filling the entire northern sky. It massive but still rather faint, soft and with little structure. I’m picking up a few dim rays. Many potentially strong aurora start this way but eventually break out into amazing lights.

The aurora returns to its soft, mushy state around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. Credit: Bob King

The aurora returns to its soft, mushy state around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. Credit: Bob King

Well, it happened. The mush congealed into a long curtain across the northern sky and shattered into a display of brilliant rays around 9:30 p.m. This lasted till around 10 when the lights died back to glows and soft rays. As of 11 p.m. it’s still out there but quiet for the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a rerun happened around midnight.

Auroras paint the sky green (and red!) on St. Patrick’s Day

Wow! Tall green and red rays of northern lights fill the northern sky earlier this morning. More may arrive tonight. "It was great to see the color in them - green and red - appropriate for the day," said Schaff said

Wow! Tall green and red rays of northern lights fill the northern sky earlier this morning. More may arrive tonight. “It was great to see the color in them – green and red – appropriate for the day,” said Schaff. Credit: Jim Schaff

What a colorful coincidence! On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day an unexpected and HUGE geomagnetic storm blew our way. And it’s still blowing. If it wasn’t for that new nova in Sagittarius, I would have slept through the whole thing. Maybe some of you rose before dawn to see the nova and turned around in surprise at what was going on behind your back.

Deliciously delicate "paws" of aurora leave temporary impressions in the northern sky this morning around 5:45 a.m. Credit: Bob King

Deliciously delicate “paws” of aurora leave temporary impressions in the northern sky this morning around 5:45 a.m. Credit: Bob King

Jim Schaff of Duluth happened to be up around 2:30 and wisely set up camera on tripod to capture the magnificent and colorful display. Even as the sky blued at the coming of dawn, the northern lights wouldn’t quit. I stood and watched two bands of green toss out rays like clowns throwing candy in a parade. Beautiful.

The Sagittarius Teapot with the new nova arrowed photographed yesterday morning March 16. Credit: Justin Cowart

The Sagittarius Teapot with the new nova arrowed photographed yesterday morning March 16. Credit: Justin Cowart

Oh and yes, there was the nova. Caught up in a green auroral haze, I nearly forgot to look, but when I did, the news was good. Reports from late yesterday indicated our new “guest star” had already faded a bit, but I saw it plainly in 10×50 binoculars at magnitude +5.6, a little brighter.

Then came another surprise – the crescent moon. The slender slipper rose above the rose ribbon of an impending sunrise. But the light was gaining. Sagittarius soon faded away as did the aurora.

The Kp or K-index measures the amount of magnetic activity high in Earth's atmosphere. Kp=8 means a severe storm. Minor auroras show up when Kp = 4 or 5. Click to see the live version which is updated every 3 hours. Credit: NOAA

The Kp or K-index measures the amount of magnetic activity high in Earth’s atmosphere. Kp=8 means a severe storm. Minor auroras show up when Kp = 4 or 5. Click to see the live version which is updated every 3 hours. Times are CDT. Credit: NOAA

Not so fast. Just because the sky turned blue didn’t mean the aurora wasn’t still in the house. Throughout the morning it continued and blossomed from a strong G3 geomagnetic storm into rather rare G4 or severe storm. G4 storms can cause electrical currents in oil pipelines, fading of shortwave radio frequencies, problems with satellite navigation and auroras as far south as Alabama. Too bad it’s daytime!

Wide open view of this morning's aurora shows two active rayed arcs. Credit: Bob King

Wide open view of this morning’s aurora shows two active rayed arcs. Credit: Bob King

Tonight, NOAA space weather forecasters are calling for G1 level or minor storms (check update below). That usually means auroras only visible from the northern tier of states and points north. You never know. The Earth’s magnetic environment is highly disturbed after being hit with blasts of solar particles from recent explosions related to the supercharged sunspot group 2297 as well as a large coronal hole. The best time to look tonight will be from about 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. CDT. Watch for low bright arcs or occasional feather-like rays in the northern sky.

The auroral oval this morning just before 5 a.m. CDT. Intense auroras were seen in the red area. Click to go to the current view of the oval. Credit: NOAA

The auroral oval this morning just before 5 a.m. CDT. Intense auroras were seen in the red area. Click to go to the current view of the oval. Credit: NOAA

Another great tool to help you predict or know when the aurora’s out is the Aurora – 30 Minute Forecast put out by NOAA. It shows the extent of the permanent aurora that’s centered on Earth’s geomagnetic pole. When the Sun’s magnetic field links up with Earth’s magnetic bubble, particles get funneled into this beanie-cap affair, causing it to expand southward. During a big aurora, it expands far enough south that folks in the Midwest and southern states can see the northern lights.

Things weren't too bad in Alaska either. This spectacular photo was taken early this morning from Donnelly Creek. Nothing like a little green on St. Patrick's Day. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

Things weren’t too bad in Alaska either. This spectacular photo was taken early this morning from Donnelly Creek. Nothing like a little green on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

May the luck of the Irish be with you tonight.

**UPDATE: The new forecast is much better. Strong to severe storms (G3-4) are now in the forecast for the remainder of the day and tonight. Start looking as soon as it gets dark.

March opens with auroras popping

Rays reach across the northern sky during last night's display of the northern lights. Credit: Bob King

Rays reach across the northern sky during last night’s display of the northern lights. Pardon the quality – it’s a hand-held exposure wedged against my deck railing. Credit: Bob King

Today begins a brand new month and maybe a break from February’s long cold spell. It might also be the start of a new round of auroral activity. Last night a nice G1 geomagnetic storm brought us active streamers and rays across the northern sky. This despite moonlight and, at least for northern Minnesota, pesky clouds, too.

NOAA space weather forecasters are calling for a second round of G1 or minor auroral storms this evening between about 6 p.m. and midnight (CST). Solar disturbances at Earth are rated on a 1 to 5 scale. G1 events usually bring auroras down to the northern tier of U.S. states from Maine to Washington. Other effects include minor fluctuations in power grids and possible impacts on computer hardware in orbiting satellites.

A good way to keep tabs on whether or not the aurora is out is to check the K or Kp index, a measure of magnetic activity in Earth's high atmosphere. The index is updated every 3 hours. The dotted line is 6 p.m. CST (0 hours UT). A Kp index of 5 often means auroras are out in the northern U.S. Credit: NOAA

A good way to keep tabs on the aurora is to check the K or Kp index, a measure of magnetic activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The index is updated every 3 hours. The dotted vertical line marks 6 p.m. CST (0 hours UT). A Kp index of 5 indicates a G1 storm is in progress; Kp=6 equals a moderate storm and Kp=9 an extreme event. Click to see the live index. Credit: NOAA with annotations by the author

With a G5 or extreme storm, even Floridians should expect auroras. Satellite electronics and poorly protected power grids can suffer damage, shortwave radio propagation cuts out and induced electric charges in oil pipelines by rapidly changing electrical currents in Earth’s ionosphere can lead to corrosion.

Let’s hope tonight’s predicted aurora brings a similar parade of active rays in the northern sky. Naturally, the moon will be a problem, but if your sky is otherwise dark, you might see a fair show.

This Sun this morning March 1 photographed in UV light by SDO. Credit: NASA

This Sun this morning March 1 photographed in UV light by SDO. Credit: NASA

Like last night, tonight’s source of auroral inspiration is that large, dark “hole” seen in images taken in ultraviolet light by NASA’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Coronal holes are regions small and large on the Sun, where the solar wind of electrons and protons flows freely away from our star at high speeds. All the fluffy yellow plumage in the photo above are magnetic fields that form a sort of canopy over much of the Sun, constraining the flow of particles into space. Holes are free-for-all zones.

Video showing the Sun rotating with a coronal hole

Last night, the magnetic field embedded within the stream pointed south upon its arrival, canceling Earth’s northward-pointing magnetic field and opening a channel into our protective magnetic domain called the magnetosphere. Once “in the building”, the particles shot down into the upper atmosphere and struck atoms and molecules there to create the aurora we saw.

Forecast for midnight tonight Feb. 28-March 1 showing how the auroral oval has expanded southward across southern Canada and the northern U.S. Credit: NOAA

Forecast from last night Feb. 28-March 1 showing how the auroral oval expanded southward across southern Canada and the northern U.S. Credit: NOAA

Besides the K-index described above, another excellent tool to check on aurora is the Aurora 30-minute forecast site. Here you’ll see a near-live view of the auroral oval, the halo of permanent auroras found centered on Earth’s geomagnetic poles. When a storm ensues, the oval (or ovals – there’s a southern one, too) expands southward from its polar lair into southern Canada and the U.S.

The forecast here is for clear tonight, so I’ll be out watching. Check back for an update then.  Good luck!

Surprise auroral storm / Comet Lovejoy update / Jupiter,moon tight tonight

Aurora and the Full Wolf Moon photographed on January 5th from Abisko National Park in Sweden. A surprise auroral storm early this morning produced auroras visible across Canada and the northern U.S. even in moonlight. Click to see more aurora photos. Credit: Oliver Wright / oliverwrightphotography.com

No one suspected it was coming, but this morning from about 3 a.m. till dawn (Central time) Earth’s magnetic bubble went bananas and busted out with auroras. At peak, the Kp index hit “7” for a G3 or strong geomagnetic storm. If only we’d known.

The auroral oval around 3:30 a.m. (CST) January 7th. Credit: NOAA

The storm appears to have been sparked by a large coronal mass ejection that may have occurred on January 3rd. The blast was originally thought to have happened on the far side of the Sun.  As the rogue solar winds passed Earth, its embedded magnetic field happened to “point south”. South-pointing magnetism find easy linkage with Earth’s north-pointing field, opening a portal for solar electrons and protons to stream in and incite polar auroral displays.

A G3 event expands the ever-present auroral oval far enough south that even folks in Illinois and other mid-western states as far south as Illinois will see the northern lights. While the activity has dropped off this afternoon, minor storming is still expected early this evening. Look to the north before moonrise for signs of a bright greenish arc.

Comet Lovejoy through a 200mm telephoto lens yesterday January 6th around 7 p.m. (CST). The comet was fainly visible with the naked eye. You can just see the tail pointing to the left of the blue-green coma. Details: 2.5 seconds, ISO 16,000. Credit: Bob King

Earlier last night before moonrise, we had clear skies here in Duluth, Minn., presenting us with a brief but nice showing of Comet Q2 Lovejoy in the constellation Eridanus. With only about 20 minutes of dark sky and the comet relatively low in the southeast it was still faintly visible with the naked eye. My 10×50 binoculars offered up the best view of the comet’s big, condensed coma; it was surprisingly easy to see about 1.5° (three full moon diameters) of faint tail streaking off to the northeast.

Watch for the waning gibbous moon to rise in conjunction with the planet Jupiter this evening. This map shows the sky facing east around 9 p.m. local time. Source: Stellarium

The moon rises later tonight leaving us even more dark sky for comet viewing. It also joins the company of the planet Jupiter this evening. Yes! The two orbs will be in conjunction tonight and really grab your eye when you face east for a view.

Click play and see the aurora sizzle and blaze in real time

Singe frame from the new video “Soaring”, one of the best real-time aurora videos. It was taken with a Sony A7S camera. This image shows a vivid coronal aurora near the zenith. Credit: Ole Solomonsen

We’ve often shared pictures and videos of the northern lights here, but wait till you see the latest video from Norwegian landscape photographer Ole Salmonsen. Salomonsen has been shooting still images and time-lapse video of the aurora for years. This week he posted a brand new movie of the aurora shot from late August through mid-November in real-time. You heard correctly – no sped-up, compressed time.This is the aurora moment-to-moment just the way you’d see it live.


“Soaring” by Ole Salomonsen

There are lots of nice touches in the video including scenes of Tromsø, Norway (where Ole is based), a woman staring into the sky and several truly amazing panned sequences that look to me like they were shot with a drone. What’s your opinion?

Although Ole’s work isn’t the first real-time aurora movie, this might be the best effort to date. The slowness of the initial sequences makes a striking contrast with later views of the coronal aurora unfolding at lightning speed and helps us to appreciate the complex rhythms that pulse through active displays.

I love it and hope you will too. For more on how the film was done, check out Ole’s site. Salomonsen tells me this work is just a small sample of what’s to come. Stay tuned!

Cloudy? Snowy? That won’t stop you from seeing THIS aurora


Aurora flyover in high-def video from the International Space Station

Wish it had been clear at dawn this morning. Some of us would have seen a very nice aurora. As predicted, Earth’s magnetic bubble got slammed by a package of high-speed solar wind overnight that fired up the northern lights. The impact continues to reverberate with more activity expected tonight.

No matter the weather or circumstance, I think you’ll enjoy this high-definition video taken from the International Space Station. The curls, rolls and flashing purple flames are, well, incredible. And there’s nothing quite like looking down on the aurora from an altitude of 250 miles (402 km). As the camera pans, you’ll also see the delicate green film of airglow, which is distinct from the northern lights – airglow surrounds the entire planet like a membrane around a cell.

Green, streaky airglow seen from the ground on July 22, 2014. Its faint light is half the reason you can always see around on even the darkest nights. The other light is provided by the stars. Credit: Bob King

Ultraviolet light from the daytime sun ionizes or knocks electrons off of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules; at night the electrons recombine with their host atoms, releasing energy as light of different colors including green, red, yellow and blue.  The brightest emission, the one responsible for creating the airglow so often seen in space station nighttime images and videos, stems from excited oxygen atoms beaming emerald green light.

Forget about the clouds and take a ride with the astronauts where it’s forever clear.

Aurora alert tonight through Monday night Nov. 9-10

Aurora smolders beneath the Big Dipper tonight November 9th around 7 p.m. Credit: Bob King

Around 7 p.m. this evening, just before moonrise, a smoky green glow fired up beneath the Big Dipper low in the northern sky. The Moon rose and clouds soon followed, but we might be in for a couple nights of northern lights.

Cirrostratus clouds at moonrise this evening refracted moonlight into a pretty halo. Caught in the semi-circle is the Hyades star cluster (lower right). The Pleiades are at upper right. Credit: Bob King

A coronal mass ejection that launched from the Sun on November 7th will arrive overnight and could produce minor to moderate (G1-G2) geomagnetic storms now through midnight Monday night. The strongest activity is expected between 3-9 a.m. (CST) tomorrow morning.

A blast of high-speed electrons and protons from the Sun on November 7 looks like it may affect Earth overnight and into Monday. Credit: NASA/ESA

Tonight’s little taste will hopefully be a sign of more to come.

Auroras in the north tonight Oct. 14-15

Aurora low in the northern sky around 10:30 p.m. CDT this evening October 14, 2014. Credit: Bob King

Earlier this evening, a glancing blow from a solar blast that left the sun on October 10th jiggled Earth’s magnetic domain to produce a modest display of northern lights. Forecasters originally expected the coronal mass ejection (CME) to miss Earth. My astronomy class and I noticed a low arc in the north as early as 8:30 p.m. A half hour later, the arc broke apart into a beautiful set of evenly-spaced rays across the northern sky.

These slowly faded back to a quiet glow as if the aurora decided to take a nap and then re-brightened about 9:30. Right now at 11 p.m. the display has returned to a quiet arc about 5 degrees above the northern horizon directly below the Big Dipper. Something about it reminds me of a pale green feather boa.

The Kp index, a measure of how magnetically disturbed the upper atmosphere is, hit 5 this afternoon and evening, the mark of a minor geomagnetic storm. Auroras are usually seen across the northern border states when Kp=5. Credit: NOAA

NOAA space weather shows a G1 minor geomagnetic storm underway since the afternoon. Activity may be dropping off now, but it’s hard to say for sure, so keep a lookout for auroras tonight if you live in the northern states and southern Canada. Besides aftereffects of the solar blast, a chance for more auroras will continue the next couple nights due to “solar sector boundary crossings”. These are changes in the direction of the magnetic field within the solar plasma (electron and proton mix) that continually streams from the sun called the solar wind.