2017 AURORA EXPEDITION#13 RESULTS 2022-07-21T17:47:25-05:00


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

Jeff February 2017 (2)a

Another successful aurora viewing trip!  Jeff Pohlman image taken with 8mm f/18 lens using a programmable intervalometer with 10 second exposures. This is one in a series of intense green aurora images captured during an outburst.  You can see what appears to be a bear or other animal shape standing on its hind legs with its mouth open.  Note the Big Dipper in upper center.

This was aurora expedition 13 (expedition 12 was to India where we intentionally observed aurora on the return flight).  We returned to Fairbanks, Alaska February 2-6, 2017 in order to once again experience the best continuing phenomenon under the Sun—the northern lights.  The solar cycle was in its minimum period but as expected auroras were being seen all year, appearing in conjunction with coronal mass ejections (CME’s) hitting the Earth after being spewed out from the Sun.  We did not experience a CME effect during our time there but rather the background, ongoing episodes that occur throughout the year.  There were no sunspots visible on the Sun confirming that we were in solar minimum.

Temperatures at night ranged from roughly -4 to -14F  in Fairbanks, but at the lodge temps were about 10 degrees warmer; winds were almost non-existent.  However, a first quarter Moon was up and this was an opportunity to see if the Moon would interfere in any way with the enjoyment of the northern lights.

In the photo gallery below, you will see a variety of images taken with different lenses, f stops and exposure times all under 30 seconds in length. The response of those configurations shows the variety in quality as well as focus. Focus is the most critical element in any aurora picture. No animals or guests were injured as a result of falling trees, ice or meteorites on this trip (or any previous ones for that matter).  However, several people were entirely freaked out by their first aurora encounter!


One of the many cool sights from the air on the way from Anchorage to Fairbanks.


Iridium 54 flares up to -5.3 magnitude on February 4 after sunset. P. Maley photo. Note the top end of the Big Dipper in the lower part of the image and two faint trails of other satellites (right and above the flare).

One feature in the night sky that we could still depend on was the sighting of various Iridium flares as shown above in a photo with two random satellite trails at 7.02pm in this 20 second exposure.  A competing flare occurred 64 seconds later when Iridium 90 passed through the same part of the sky. The source of each flare was the satellite’s Main Mission Antennas.


Yurt (on the right) newly built and now used for retreating from the cold during aurora watching. Note the clear daytime sky and extensive snow. You needed snow boots to navigate the trails. 

A new feature of our stay was the existence of a yurt purchased from a dog mushing group next door.  Outfitted with lots of chairs, a/c power and a heater, observers could go in and out as needed in order to avoid the cold.  You can see from the image above that it is located about 50 yards from the main house. Snow was about 12-15 inches deep but if you moved off the path you could sink into 2 or more feet of soft snow. We were lucky not to arrive 10 days earlier when the low was -50 deg. F.

A second improvement was in the rooms themselves; it was the addition of draw shades behind the drapes. These helped keep stray room light from leaking into the back of the hotel and interfering with exposures.  But in the adjacent buildings careless people managed to leave their lights on in the evening while we were attempting to view the aurora.


In the daylight viewing from inside our room there are draw shades fully pulled down on the left window and rolled back on the right window. You can walk out into the back from the downstairs rooms and check the sky for aurora. 


Optional dog mushing during the day; the activity is located within easy walking distance behind the lodge.

There were several optional activities that could be undertaken–dog mushing being one of them. An optional excursion to walk with reindeer was another.

Loren February 2017 (46)ab

Walking with reindeer on a beautiful morning in Fairbanks. L. Eskenazi photo. 


Most of the 14 members of our group are in this photo. Dinner (and all meals) were excellent!  Left to right: Lynn Palmer, Chuck Branda, Geri Branda, Peter Arkley, Susan Lyday, Carl Lyday (end of table), Denise Wynn, Gordon Lamb, Diane Seaman, Juan Carbajo and Brogan Thomsen. Not pictured Lauren Eskenazi. P. Maley photo. 

This time we were scheduled for 4 consecutive nights of aurora viewing and like all the others we expected at least one night with cloud. However, we were favored with outstanding weather during our entire trip. No clouds, no snowstorms, no weather delays or power outages! One optional tour involved traveling all the way to the Arctic Circle and back over an 18 hour period where facilities such as bathrooms were minimal.  Below is an example of an outhouse you might expect to see while out in the sticks. However, this one was actually a mural in the Fairbanks airport.



Due to the cold temperatures and the need to stay outside for long periods of time, it is always advisable to protect your camera gear.  The image below shows Carl Lyday’s camera wrapped with a hand warmer to protect the battery compartment and secured with a twist tie.  My shutter release cables jammed on 3 nights from the cold.

wrapped camera_carlb

Camera protection. P. Maley photo. 


Result using the above Lumix “point and shoot” camera shows a faint aurora glow with 30 seconds exposure. Point and shoot cameras, like smart phones can pick up aurora but the images with DSLRs seem much more pleasing. This was a first attempt using the more recent models. I used my own Lumix camera with similar results. C. Lyday photo.

Food was also a priority and staying at our lodge, we truly enjoyed it at every meal.  Below is a New York strip cooked medium rare.


One dinner choice

At least one person attempted to photograph auroras with an IPhone. However, the shots were hand held rather than the usual tripod mount for 35mm cameras.  Surprisingly the brighter ones were captured though grainier in quality than with DSLR’s.


Hand-held Iphone aurora image silhouetted above the snow-covered trees. B. Thomsen photo. No stars visible.


Auroras near the Moon with 2 small internal lens reflections to the upper right of the Moon.  The constellation of Auriga is directly above the Moon with Perseus and Cassiopeia to its right. P. Maley photo with 14mm f/2.8 lens.  

This was our first attempt to shoot auroras near the first quarter Moon with the Moon in the field of view of our wide angle lenses.  Above you can see the results showing the snow, part of Orion, the Pleiades to the right of the Moon and two aurora sections.


Trees on the property clash with aurora bands some of which are stronger than others in this photo. The constellation of Lyra is to right of center.

Some auroras covered so much area an 8mm wide angle lens was needed to capture it all. J. Pohlman photo.


Thin green arc with a very faint band above it. Such an arc is typical and generally may herald the start of auroral activity.  The constellation of Cassiopeia is to left of center. P. Maley photo.

Not all auroras were wild and strong. In fact, over the four nights, there were fits and starts of activity with the longest lasting over a 3 hour interval.  The above image gives you an idea of a typical arc.  Such an arc may remain in the same position and look weak or strong, thin or thick. Typically they migrate south from the Arctic Circle and moved toward us slowly.


Here, an arc intensifies exciting observers. P. Maley photo.

Loren February 2017 (81)ab

Other arcs morph into shapes. L. Eskenazi photo.


A swirl with a curtain takes shape. Note the constellation of Draco to left of center. P. Maley photo. 


On a couple of nights we had what appeared to be cirrus clouds covering most of the sky. In reality these were smeared auroral areas that were poor in photogenic qualities. The constellation of Lyra is directly above center. 


Beam me up! L. Palmer photo.

Loren February 2017 (255)a

Lens flare eliminated when trees block most of the Moon. L. Eskenazi photo.

Virtually every image with the Moon in it caused some sort of reflection in the photos.  By blocking the moonlight from entering the camera the aurora image still imprints but without those pesky extra glare artifacts.


Sometimes you just cannot help but look! The Big Dipper is above center. P. Maley photo.

The varied nature of the shapes and forms auroras will take make it such an awesome bucket list spectacle. The following 3 images show how just waiting a matter of 1 or 2 minutes between exposures will result in completely different effects.


Image 1 of 3


Image 2 of 3


Image 3 of 3.  Above 3 images separated by 1 to 2 minutes.  The constellation of Draco is to left of center. P. Maley photos. 


Gordon Lamb February 2017 (24)b

The group at the pipeline. G. Lamb image.


Brogan Thomsen at the Yukon River.  G. Lamb photo. 


Brogan falls into the Yukon?

Gordon Lamb February 2017 (30)b

The Moon above the frozen landscape on the way to the Arctic Circle. G. Lamb photo.

Gordon Lamb February 2017 (33)b

Sunset at the Arctic Circle sign. G. Lamb photo. 

Loren February 2017 (30)aReindeer and dog showdown. L. Eskenazi photo.


Lynn Palmer up close and personal with a reindeer. J. Carbajo photo. 


Where is my photo reimbursement check?? L. Palmer photo.


Brogan creating his own “hand sandwich”.  L. Palmer photo.


Accommodations for 19 of the 63 sled dogs at the adjacent dog mushing property.


The car museum in Fairbanks was another interesting attraction. Here Carl Lyday stands next to a Pierce Arrow. S. Lyday photo.


Our lodge features an overflowing collection of unusual items. C. Lyday photo.