Watching Stardust: Alaska’s Aurora

Guest Post: In which Jon Renner, a.k.a. Don Quixote, enlightens us…

When you are standing in -1 degrees Fahrenheit darkness,  and the sky lights up like this … well, it’s just amazing.  The two bright points of light below and to the right of the moon in the pictures are Venus and Jupiter, respectively.

These pictures are fairly long exposures (15 seconds) at f2.8 … and although you get the general sense of what it’s like to watch the display, the subtle changes are completely lost.  In the bottom picture for example, just before this picture was started there was a flash of light where the greenish light in this picture was captured, but much brighter.  The image that was actually captured shows the dying light from the initial surge of particles into our atmosphere … a light that dances and sways as it dims.  The top picture shows the crescent moon, distorted by the long exposure and resulting blossoming on the image sensor, but also captures an earlier stage of the energy pulse … and far from being static … or even predictable … the sky seems alive, dynamic in a way that even the most beautiful sunsets never manage.

As we stood in a frozen parking lot at the top of a pass 40 miles north of Fairbanks, watching this silent light show, I was struck by how interesting it was that we and perhaps 50 other people were all here, in the middle of nowhere, staring up at the sky … quietly amazed.  The particles that caused this display were emitted from one of the many coronal flares on the sun earlier in the week, and although sites like this one predict when and where the displays will be visible, nothing really prepares a person for the experience.  These pictures were taken at a time when the aurora was at a “3” on a 9-point scale, and it’s hard to imagine what a “9” display would look like.  I’ve read that you can see the color of the aurora during this kind of event by looking at the snow instead of the sky!

In the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks there is a room called “The Listening Room,” and in this dimly lighted space one can listen to both the seismic and auroral sounds of the area.  A very eerie place where the earth growls and shrieks and the aurora sounds like wind chimes.  While we were there both the earth and sky were quiet, but the sound of the pipeline served as a constant background dirge … somehow appropriate to our time.

(Editorial note: As an after-thought on our modern technology sensing and the senses beyond sight and sound, Jon writes…)

The north pole of the planet isn’t in the same place as the Earth’s magnetic north pole, and this causes some interesting effects, including a very noticeable “wobble” in the aurora.  It also really confuses “apps” like Google Sky that relies on a Hall effect sensor in the user’s phone to figure out where “North” is so that it can properly align its sky map.  Some animals like geese, and possibly humans as well, have a sense of direction based in part on their ability to determine the position of magnetic north, and use this sense to guide long range navigation.  Because the two poles are so far apart at this latitude, the display on your smart phone, oriented by magnetic information, doesn’t match what you see in the sky very well.  Worse, someone who generally has a “good sense of direction,” becomes easily confused as to whether to turn left or right out of the parking lot to get home.  It’s a good thing that we have bread crumbs.

A wonderful way to spend Spring Break!

(Biographical note: Jon Renner is an “old guy” with lots of illuminating and humorous stories to tell.  After serving a stint in the U.S. Navy he went on to rock and roll the engineering world.  After a few years of that he decided that he really wanted to do the world some good and got into the education business.  He teaches social studies, psychology, technology, and how to do our duty as productive and participating citizens.)


4 responses to “Watching Stardust: Alaska’s Aurora

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