2017 AURORA EXPEDITION#14 RESULTS 2022-07-21T17:47:57-05:00


by Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society

This is NOT smoke from a forest fire. It is the Northern Lights. The aurora appears with a set of empty viewing chairs waiting for people to take notice.  Note the Big Dipper in the upper left, the constellations of Gemini and Orion, to the upper right.  The lodge is to the far left, the yurt directly center and other light sources to the right reflecting off the clouds.  P. Maley photo taken at 631am on October 19. 

We returned to Alaska for another Northern Lights watching trip from October 14-19, 2017.  This time the weather proved to be uncooperative almost to the max.  We had nearly constant clouds and a lot of snow flurries as it was the transition period from fall to winter with the first significant snowfall occurring during this time.  What follows is an account of what almost was a wash out.  However, we had great good fortune on our last night as clouds cleared just before sunrise giving us a nearly 3 hour aurora show.

Our trip this time consisted of 10 persons: Paul Maley, Lynn Palmer, Brogan Thomsen, Tom Beelmann, Nancy Riley, Esther Caprez, Bill Okerlund, Mark Weber, Mitch and Sue Murray.

Lynn and I were forced to overnight in Anchorage due to a United Airlines schedule change that occurred after we bought our tickets. Luckily we had clear weather that night and I was able to capture a little aurora band to the north.

Unexpected photo of greenish aurora band on the northern horizon as seen from Anchorage on October 15 morning with my 8mm f/3.5 lens, ISO 1600. P. Maley photo. 

This photo was taken about 15 minutes later. you can see the green reflection from the lake. P. Maley photo. 

Once in Fairbanks the lodge is located not far from a dog mushing operation.

Dormitory housing for sled dogs. Lynn Palmer photo. 

10 week old potential sled dog puppies getting ready for their first adventure. Tom Beelmann photo. 

Here, about an inch of snow (the first of the year) has just fallen and a team of 6 dogs is contracted to pull an ATV.

Trails before the snow begins to fall adjacent to the lodge. Typically the dogs will mush once 3 or 4 inches of snow has covered the ground. Lynn Palmer photo. 

Meals are always great at the lodge. Here Brogan Thomsen consumes mass quantities of chili at lunch.  Bill Okerlund photo.

Walking with reindeer. Sue Murray photo. 

Close to the Alaska pipeline. Sue Murray photo. 

If you forget to bring along cold weather gear, the lodge has a small inventory of cold weather gear that you might be able to rent. 

A steep decline on icy roads can be quite hazardous. Sue Murray photo. 

“Sun dog” (left of center) seen in the late afternoon. P. Maley photo.

An aptly named road exit sign. P. Maley photo. 

Murphy Dome is one of the locations where people can go to observe aurora. However, the background shows how it was daily with clouds, snow and poor visibility. Brogan Thomsen (left), Mark Weber (center), Tom Beelmann (right).  Murphy Dome was once home to Murphy Dome Air Force Station with a dozen buildings and 250 personnel stationed here at any given time. Now, the vast majority of the site has been cleared though one remaining facility still stands in working order as a long range radar station. The purpose is to detect military air threats from afar so that they might be intercepted. Brogan Thomsen photo.

Ester Dome is another potential aurora viewing location. Ester Dome is the mountain that dominates the skyline just to the west of Fairbanks, Alaska. It is a popular recreation area for locals. The summit area was the site for a ski area, Ullrhaven, in the 50’s and 60’s, and more recently, an observatory. The mountain is managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources office in Fairbanks. At 2,364 feet, and at over 1,700 feet above the Tanana River Valley nearby, Ester Dome offers outstanding views of the White Mountains to the north, the Alaska Range and the Tanana River valley to the south, and on very clear days – Mount McKinley, over 200 miles to the southeast. Here Tom Beelmann attempts a photo. Brogan Thomsen image.

If you are lucky you might see a moose wandering about. P. Maley photo. 

When it is cloudy you might see this interesting light pillar effect.  Six of them are visible in this photo.  A light pillar is an atmospheric optical phenomenon in the form of a vertical band of light which appears to extend above a light source. The effect is created by the reflection of light from numerous tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere or clouds.  I first saw these in 2015 in Svalbard but here they were much less distinct.  P. Maley photo.

When it is overcast, Kory, the owner of the lodge, flies a drone over the lodge property.  P. Maley photo.

Our group at dinner one night. Left to right: Brogan Thomsen, Esther Caprez, Sue Murray, Nancy Riley, Mitch Murray, Paul D. Maley, Lynn Palmer, Bill Okerlund, Mark Weber, Tom Beelmann.  Kory Eberhardt photo.

One of the main entree dinner choices: shrimp scampi. P. Maley photo.



October 15 was the first of four nights when we were taunted by bright green displays behind overcast skies! Tom Beelmann photo. 

October 16 and 17 were overcast with snow. But there were times on October 16 when we saw “electricity” behind the clouds. Something big was brewing in the sky above us and this was the best view we could achieve. P. Maley photo.

On the final night (October 18) it was looking quite grim after 7 hours of overcast sky.  The outside temps were around 14 degrees F.  Then at 400am October 19 we noticed this faint glow that to the naked eye was white, not green. It appeared as very small, low in the west. The reddish glow is Fairbanks city lights reflected from the cloud cover that was beginning to clear from the west moving to the east.

The start of our big aurora viewing experience on night 4.  P. Maley photo.

We could soon see that there was more to this aurora than met the eye.  Note the constellation of Cygnus on the horizon, to the right of the aurora base; Cassiopeia is located above center.  P. Maley photo. 

After 30 minutes this aurora expanded to cover 150 degrees of sky and remained almost stationary for 1.5 hours. This is an all sky fish eye view with my 8mm lens.  Note the constellations or Gemini (left of center), Orion (lower left), Auriga (left of center).  The pink glow is reflection of ground lights from cloud.  P. Maley photo.

At 547am the Iridium 6 satellite passed through the band and flared twice, the first time to magnitude -3 just under the center of the frame. P. Maley photo. 

At its peak the band developed dark gaps and began to slowly expand to the north and south. P. Maley photo.

Aurora can take on odd forms. The above ‘tuning fork’ seemed as if it was getting ready to come down from the sky and grab one of us. P. Maley photo. 

A interesting “blue streak” aurora appears to the lower left of center. This coloration maintained it self on a number of images as the overall aurora features changed.  P. Maley photo.

 Purple auroras show up in the curtain to the left of center. P. Maley photo.

Inside the yurt you can do almost anything including killing time by playing a game of Jenga. This is a physical skill game where players take turns removing one block at a time from a tower constructed of 54 blocks. Each block removed is then placed on top of the tower, creating a progressively taller and unstable structure.  Brogan Thomsen photo.

What is at the end of this rainbow? That is what we were thinking.  P. Maley photo.

We expected a corona to form overhead as new shapes began to appear.  P. Maley photo. 

Small ‘comet like features’ began to appear lasting a few seconds as they appeared and disappeared while the name band remained. P. Maley photo. 












The changing shape of this large feature over 30 seconds between the above image and the one to the right. P. Maley photos.

A curtain suddenly appeared and seemed to waver and shake in the wind. P. Maley photo. 

The brilliant green enhanced by a longer exposure. Tom Beelmann photo with a 14mm lens.

The intensity is apparent in this image. Tom Beelmann photo.

Even in the trees the Northern Lights continue to impress. Tom Beelmann photo. 

A mix of cloud and aurora does not seem to take away from the photograph. Tom Beelmann image.

The final curtain at 645am. P. Maley photo. 

Aurora from a Boeing 737 hand flying from Anchorage to Denver holding for 8 seconds. Big dipper in upper left but bands are somewhat blurred and indistinct. P. Maley photo.

The lesson learned from this trip was that you should always stay to the very end, no matter what.  Four of the ten participants left prior to this grand finale but did manage to see aurora from the air on the way back from Fairbanks. So, overall, everyone saw some displays and we considered this trip a success.