Jimmy Westlake: Chasing the Northern Lights
October 7, 2013
A group of 22 students, faculty, and staff — all members of the Colorado Mountain College SKY Club — recently flew to Alaska in search of the Northern Lights. These magnificent lights, also called the aurora borealis, are rare from Colorado but are more common as you head north toward the Arctic Circle. From far northern latitudes, the aurora can be seen on most dark, clear nights of the year.
The Northern Lights are the result of a wind of charged particles that constantly blows outward from our sun. When these charged particles — mostly protons and electrons — get tangled up in the Earth's magnetic field lines that fill the space around us, they are drawn in toward the magnetic poles. Careening down into the upper atmosphere, these tiny, solar bullets ricochet off of oxygen and nitrogen atoms upwards of about 60 miles and cause them to glow in spectacular shades of red, green and purple light. The colored lights dance and wave across the sky as the solar wind buffets our magnetic field like the Kansas wind blows through a wheat field.
We knew from the get-go that there was no guarantee of success. The Northern Lights happen when they want to happen, but I know a few of their tricks. They like to show up around the March and September Equinoxes, at midnight during the dark of the moon, and in a year when the sun is most fitful. All of those factors came together in late September this year, and we wanted to put ourselves in the best location to see the aurora, if it happened.
After a breathtaking drive past topaz glaciers and through the autumn colors that painted the Chugach Mountains from Anchorage up to Fairbanks, we watched and waited. Our first night was crystal clear and the dome of the sky was so skewed from our familiar Colorado view that I almost tumbled over while looking up! Polaris was almost at the zenith and the toes of the Great Bear, which usually is submerged beneath our northern mountains, and was easily visible ticking the tops of the Alaskan peaks. But, alas, no auroras greeted us that night.
The second night brought cold, icy snow clouds, but our final night in the Last Frontier offered broken clouds. From Talkeetna, patches of starry sky appeared and disappeared as the clouds swirled overhead, revealing an eerie glow that was there and not there. Aurora? I can't be sure.
We did manage to "hear" the Northern Lights from a special room at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks called "The Place Where You Go to Listen." There, electric signals from a magnetometer that measures auroral activity are converted into the angelic tones of a chorus of bells, while similar signals from a seismometer that measures the vibrations of the Earth are converted into deep reverberating rumbles that shake your insides. You have to experience it to believe it.
So we flew back to Colorado, satisfied with many megabites of memories of our Alaskan Northern Lights expedition, but without having bagged the big one.
But wait! On our last day in Alaska, a massive eruption on the sun hurled a billion-ton cloud of plasma out into space and toward Earth. While we were jetting back home, nodding through the Arctic night, the solar wind was becoming a solar hurricane. Once we were back home in Colorado, snug in our beds, the blast hit the Earth's magnetic bubble and the Northern Lights sprang to life. They lit up the skies across all of Alaska and Canada, as well as the northern tier of U.S. states. I glanced out of my window at about 2 a.m. Wednesday morning and saw the unmistakable red glow of an aurora to the north. Bundling up against the chill, I grabbed the camera and tripod and went down to the lake at Stagecoach. It appeared as if the whole state of Wyoming was on fire to the north, throwing up a featureless, red glow into the sky. I could only imagine how magnificent it must have appeared from Alaska.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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