RESULTS OF THE 5TH AURORA VIEWING TRIP TO ALASKA MARCH 2014
by Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society
Our 5th Alaska Aurora Tour was again successful in observing aurora on 2 of 4 nights in Fairbanks, Alaska. The team consisted of Dan and Diana Bort, Paul and Debbie Lobert, Dee Holisky and Bob Hammarberg, Gloria and Gerry Hasson, Terry Eggleston, Lynn Palmer and myself.
Daniel Bort took the time to watch the aurora in detail. His summary of what transpired appears below. I have interspersed some photos to enhance the overall experience.
“The first night we went to Chandler Ranch, about 30 minutes outside Fairbanks. We stopped on the way to observe a satellite.
An unidentified satellite flashes over the Taste of Alaska Lodge. ISO800, 30 second exposure, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.
There are satellites that have big panels on them (I can’t remember if they are solar arrays or for some other purpose), but they are highly reflective. Paul Maley, our group leader, has data that describes the paths that the reflections from these panels trace on the earth. He had the van driver stop by the side of the road, and told us that in 90 seconds, in a part of the sky that he pointed out, we would briefly see a bright light in the sky…and so it was. It was more orange than a star, and brighter than almost all of them; and it only lasted for about 10-15 seconds. It was cool. It made me think of Paul as kind of a magician.
At that same time, Paul pointed out two bands of aurora borealis to us, and indicated they were favorable harbingers of what might come later in the night.
Precursor of better aurora to come. A faint green band or bands usually begin in the northern part of the sky. Lynn Palmer photo.
I was immediately kind of disappointed, as the two bands looked to me, for all the world, like a couple of bands of cloud — about as pedestrian a sight as I could imagine. “That’s it?” I thought to myself. If he had not pointed them out to us, I never would have even noticed them; and even if I had, it would never have occurred to me that they were aurora borealis.
You can see clouds because light reflects off them. At night, if you can see clouds as anything other than portions of the sky where you cannot see stars, a good portion of the light that reveals them comes up from the earth. Even though I could intellectually realize that there was very little light coming off the earth at this time of night, and thus the very fact that I could see the bands at all indicated they had their own luminescence, I could not, emotionally, get past the ordinariness of the appearance.
When we got to Chandler Ranch, the bands, fairly low on the northern horizon, persisted. I got suitably armed in warm clothing and went outside. For a couple of hours I stood in the snow and watched. I could never see the bands changing, but I would note, from time to time, that they had changed in small ways. A couple of times it seemed to me that, at the right end of the bands near the horizon, there were brief glows of blue and green, but the whole thing was so ephemeral and subtle that, when the effects were gone, I would immediately question whether I had in fact seen them or simply imagined them.
Our orientation was to the North. It was fun to see the North Star, Polaris, so high in the sky directly in front of us.
The North Star is just above the top of this view with the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) clearly inside an aurora. P. Maley photo. Feb. 27, ISO1600, 10 sec, 11mm f/5.
Well off to our left was the glow from the City of Fairbanks, and it did not interfere with our observations. The bands went across the sky, fairly low in front of us from right-to-left or from left-to-right – as you prefer. At times there was only one band, and there was a time when there was a third band, higher in the sky, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything.
3 auroral bands remain somewhat static in the north. P.Maley photo. 11mm f/5, 20 sec, ISO800.
After a couple of hours I went inside to get some hot chocolate, more out of boredom than anything else. Afterwards, instead of going back down to the snow, I went out on the second floor deck of the building that was our base. I found a chair and sat down. It had been a long day, and I kept falling asleep. I think the temperature was in the high single-digits, but I was warmly dressed, and comfortable. But after about two and a half hours of viewing, my fingers and toes began to get cold. But about then, we started to notice some aurora coming up from our right which, if it continued, would go directly over our heads. So I stuck it out, and it did continue. To the exclamations of a young Japanese woman nearby (there were several different groups there), I watched the band appear.
If you can imagine someone taking a handful of small gravel and throwing it with great force into water; and then imagine that you are under water and watching the discrete packet of parallel bubble trails or wake lines that the pebbles create, you may have a sense of what I was seeing. There were several sets of these parallel line segments in the sky to our right, and several to our left, rising from the horizon to near the zenith.
An example of the portions of aurora that moved from one part of the sky to the other. It is difficult to capture the narrow parallel features due to their quick movement. P. Maley photo. 13 sec, ISO1600, 11mm, f/5 lens.
The sets of parallel lines were not, however, parallel to each other. I assume the same thing was happening directly overhead, but because of our different orientation to it, the activity directly above our heads had a different appearance and was less distinct. The uncanny thing was that I could not see anything moving or in the act of appearing, it just seemed to be there.
A blazing aurora covers part of the western sky. P. Lobert photo. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 26mm, f/2.8, 20 sec, ISO1600.
I endured a lengthy period of discomfort to my fingers and toes because I didn’t want to miss any action. But finally, when things seemed quiet, I went inside and put hand warmers in my boots and warmed up my fingers. When I came out, I went back to the deck, and things were happening. I don’t know what I missed, but there were ribbons in the sky. They did not go horizon to horizon, but they were distinct.
Ribbons in the sky. P. Maley photo. 30 sec. 11mm, f/5, ISO1600.
Everything to this point had seemed to me to be more or less grey in color — like clouds. But now the aurora seemed to have a greenish tinge to it.
I’ve already forgotten how it developed — whether from the left horizon or the right — but a huge ribbon then developed that went horizon to horizon. It was not directly overhead, but it was high in the sky, much higher than the indistinct bands that had been around more or less all evening low in the northern horizon.
Part of a ribbon that danced across the sky. There is a lot more detail sometimes than meets the eye. P. Maley photo. 10 seconds, ISO1600, 11mm, f/5.
This new band — which I think I inaccurately remember as being slightly orange — seemed to come quite close. Others saw it, I think more accurately, as light green. My impression at the time was that what I am about to describe was taking place just a few hundred meters from us (when in fact, Paul told me later, it was probably 60 to 80 miles away). Coming from the left, this new band, which originally had looked sort of like Christo’s cloth fence some years ago in Sonoma County, grew in height and complexity. The impression it gave to me was that ot contained a huge, two-dimensional dragon.
A “dragon’ rears its head and spreads its wings. One of the many forms that aurora can take. P. Maley photo. 15 sec, ISO1600, 11mm, f/5.
The above aurora photo could be described as an angel. P. Lobert image. March 3, 15 sec, ISO1600, 26mm, f/2.8.
Suddenly a narrow length of the curtain grew enormously high up into the sky. It came right out of the place the dragon’s wings would have been. Then the “dragon” changed and then disintegrated. But then I noticed, coming from the right (all within the two dimensions of the “curtain”) a procession of what seemed to me to look like Egyptian boats, with their high prows at each end. For the first time, instead of simply noticing changes that had taken place, I could consciously see the aurora moving. It was all-absorbing. I was transfixed. The processions went on for, I don’t know, perhaps a minute, and then it faded and the whole curtain dissolved into a much less distinct band.
Those few minutes were the highlight of the night, and I think they occurred between one and two in the morning.
After a day at the Chena Hot Springs (I enjoyed a dip in the springs and a sled dog ride and a tour of their geo-thermal setup), we got back to the Taste of Alaska Lodge late and I was quite tired. I went to bed, but then woke up at 11:30. I got up and went through the long process of getting dressed to spend a long time outside.
Alaska has had an unusually warm winter. January and February are normally between 20 and 40 degrees below zero. But our lows were around zero.
Diana got up and came with me, but when we got outside, there were a lot of clouds. Diana’s first reaction was that if we had seen the clouds before we came out, we wouldn’t have bothered. But we were out, so we stumbled around a bit, but eventually found our way to some chairs on the ground a short distance below the Lodge. Paul Lobert was there with his camera, and his red flashlight had guided us.
I sat in one of the chairs and leaned back looking at the sky. I decided to just enjoy the fact that I was outside, in the middle of the night, at a far northern latitude in Winter; which was kind of unusual and fun. I was looking north, over the Lodge. After a while, Paul noticed a portion of the sky to the right of the Lodge and near the horizon that had some illumination. There were clouds and trees in front of it, but they did not entirely block it. Paul took a picture of it and it showed up clearly on the picture as an area of green sky.
I went back to my chair and after a while noticed a similar area of sky to the left of the Lodge – again near the horizon. I pointed it out to Paul.
The night before, some of the auroral bands had seemed to “grow” up from one horizon or the other – sometimes both, and then meeting near the zenith. Those bands had been going across the sky from right-to-left or left-to-right. Suddenly I noticed, right in front of me, an indistinct line of light growing up from behind the Lodge. It was coming straight over me from directly in front of me – no left-to-right or right-to-left orientation. It increased in brightness. At first it widened at the top, becoming like a very tall and narrow vase with flowers. I called out to Paul, and he began to photograph it.
Then two or three times it formed kind of ribbons in the sky – at least one with a twist in it – very distinct for a time and then going fuzzy (like a skywriter’s art dissipating) and then fading away. Two of them had a very north-south orientation – pointing, generally, straight over my head. One of them was a little fancier and had kind of a swirl at one end. It had more of a side-to-side orientation and was positioned a little to the right of north. None of them had any contact with the horizon, but were of limited length – although obviously still enormous.
I have seen photographs – and even video – of aurora borealis that looked like a curtain waving in the wind. Well, that’s what I saw next. A curtain appeared. It was running more or less north and south (toward me) and then tailing off a bit to the left at its far end. It seemed to be comprised of vertical lines, or to have a vertical “grain” to it.
Cobra aurora. P. Maley photo. 5 sec, ISO800, 14mm, f/2.8.
Exploding aurora! P. Maley photo. ISO800, 10 sec, 14mm, f/2.8.
Genie in a bottle aurora. P. Maley photo. ISO1600, 25 sec, 11mm f/5.
Big mouth aurora. P. Maley photo. 12mm, f/5, ISO1600, 25 sec.
The actual movement of the aurora borealis that I had seen the night before had been very stately – almost in slow motion. But now I saw rapid motion. It was of two kinds: the curtain did wave and fluctuate as if it actually were a curtain being blown by the wind; and even more rapid were movements of light within the two-dimensions of the curtain itself. In one sense I didn’t have the best view of this movement of light because the curtain was “end on” to me. But, of course, it was not straight, but as if it were billowing somewhat in the imaginary wind – and it did curve to the left at its far end – so I could see the sides of the curtain to some extent. The movement of light seemed to be generally from the end of the curtain nearest me to the rear and upward, and it was rapid. It was almost as if some sort of light show were being projected onto the curtain from the side.
An auroral curtain shimmers in the sky. P. Maley photo. 20 sec, ISO1600, 11mm, f/5.
Years ago I saw a movie called “Local Hero.” It is old enough to have featured Burt Lancaster very late in his career. The hero is a young oil man from Houston. At one point he is on the North Coast of Scotland (trying to arrange something for handling North Sea oil), and a little drunk, and he sees the Northern Lights. He is both charmed and awed by them, and he calls the Burt Lancaster character in Houston to describe them. Well, at this point I was both charmed and awed by what I saw, but without the alcohol.
I do not have a great sense now for how long the curtain lasted, but it was not long. It could have been two or three minutes; or it could have been 30 seconds; but it evoked a sense of wonder.”
A bright auroral curtain. P. Maley photo. 20 sec, ISO1600, 11mm, f/5.
MORE AURORA IMAGES
Remember when you thought it would be cloudy all night and you did not get up? Here is what happened when Paul Lobert decided to stick it out at Taste of Alaska.
P.Lobert photo. March 4, ISO1600, 15sec, 16mm f/2.8.
P.Lobert photo. March 4, ISO1600, 15sec, 16mm f/2.8.
P.Lobert photo. March 4, ISO1600, 15sec, 25mm f/2.8.
P.Lobert photo. March 4, ISO1600, 15sec, 16mm f/2.8.
P.Lobert photo. March 4, ISO1600, 20sec, 16mm f/2.8.
Aurora image by T. Eggleston. Canon EOS 60D, ISO1600, 24mm f/4, 10 seconds.
OTHER TOUR PHOTOS
Magic at the Ice Sculpture Park. L. Palmer photo.
The roads around Fairbanks. P. Maley photo.
Another example of the fine artistic ice carvings at the night excursion to the Ice Park. L. Palmer photo.
Snowboarding at the University of Alaska. P. Maley photo.
Denali National Park mountains. L. Palmer photo.
Ice sculpture outside the University of Alaska Museum. P. Maley photo.