Aurora Comes True, More Forecast For Tonight

A possible blue starter, an unusual form of lightning, shoots upward from a departing thundercloud last night around 11 p.m. Central Time. The storm was about 100 miles away at the time. It was the first time I’ve ever seen lightning go up! Details: ISO 3200, 20 second exposure at f/2.8 and 35mm lens. Bob King

If you stayed up late or got up this morning before dawn you may have seen the northern lights. I drove to a beautiful, buggy field a little north of Duluth, Minn. and set up a camera hoping to capture sprites over a distant thunderstorm. In the 128 photos I took not one sported a sprite, an eerie form of cold, pink lightning that briefly appears over the tops of powerful thunderstorms. But I sure enjoyed all the flashes — there were hundreds! — and I did manage to capture a rare blue starter. Blue starters are a form of upper atmospheric lightning that shoots upward from a thundercloud into clear air.

Last night’s aurora seen around midnight. Two arcs were visible; the lower one broke up into faint parallel rays. Along the top of the upper arc a pale pink band is visible. Both pink and green colors are caused by excitation of oxygen atoms by electrons streaming from the big coronal hole that’s been facing Earth since last week. The bright star at lower right is Capella. Details: ISO 4000, 24mm at f/2.8, 25 seconds. Bob King

Aurora was in the forecast as described in yesterday’s blog, but nothing showed even as late as 11 o’clock. Then, all at once about 11:30 p.m., I noticed the faintest glow only a few degrees above the northern horizon. Five minutes later it was more distinct and within 10 minutes you could spot it with a casual glance.

In this view of the aurora you can see the outline of the Big Dipper at upper left. A satellite trail appears at upper right. Bob King

Over the next hour, the arc thickened and brightened until it stood 12° (more than a fist held vertically at arm’s length) above the northern horizon. Beneath it a second arc formed and developed pleated rays resembling a Scotsman’s kilt. I watched until 12:30 this morning when clouds slid in from the west and eventually covered the sky around 1 a.m. From other reports I’ve seen, including one from as far south as Iowa, the aurora continued through the night. You wouldn’t call it a spectacular show, but watching the ebb and flow of even a small aurora is enough for me.

There’s nothing like watching a distant lightning storm under a dark, starry sky. This is one view from last night. The Andromeda Galaxy is visible at top center — it’s the oval fuzzy thing with a bright center. Bob King

The space weather forecast predicts another minor G1 storm for tonight just like last night. Generally, the later you’re out the better. If the sky is clear and especially if you live in the northern half of the northern border states it’s worth your while to step out for a look. Remember to pick a spot where the northern sky isn’t aglow with light pollution and allow your eyes at least 10 minutes to get used to the darkness. Early auroras can be faint until (or if) they strengthen. Bring bug repellant and a chair, then relax and wait. I had the crickets, katydids, the Milky Way and a host of stars to keep me company. Expect nothing and you’ll have a great night out.