Look Out For The Northern Lights Surprise

Look Out For The Northern Lights Surprise

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It's always great to get the scope out and watch the moon, the planets or the stars.  But sometimes the Aurora Borealis shows up and makes us just stop and watch.


We're currently at the end of an 11-year solar cycle.  Solar activity continues to be significant and sometimes we actually hear a brief mention about it on the nightly news.  The good news for any astronomer is that a display of the Northern Lights can give us much more to watch.


The unique dynamic that creates the Aurora Borealis (or the Aurora Australis as it called in the southern hemisphere) is a collision between electrically charged particles cast out from the sun and into the earth's atmosphere.  They congregate at the north and south poles because of the shape and dynamic of the Earth's magnetosphere.   This dynamic concentrates the particles at the north and south poles during high-degrees of solar activity.   According to NASA this December may be the best time in a decade to view the Aurora.

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Colours of the Aurora range from pale white to green and pink and on occasions red, yellow, violet and blue.  At times they shimmer or sometimes hang like long drapes from the sky above with a vibrating glow.    


What's curious is that the display that often appears in the north is reflected in the south both in terms of colour and intensity. 

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 Image of Aurora Australis

Cold, clear winter nights are the best times for viewing and the end of 2013 promises to provide some good displays.


The next solar-cycle won't happen until 2024 so this winter is the year to keep your eyes on the northern skies in the northern hemisphere and to the south in the southern hemisphere. 


Astrophotography of the northern lights is possible with a digital camera.  A camera with a high ISO setting is critical.  This is the sensitivity to light in very low-light conditions.  Years ago it was referred to as "ASA."  This was the sensitivity of film to light and it was often difficult to capture the Aurora with a traditional film camera.  Digital photography is more effective and you also have the ability to easily enhance your photos in terms of brightness, contrast and colour density using any number of digital image programs. 


The sky always gives many opportunities to study, explore, stop and wonder.  The occasional appearance of the Aurora is one more reason to watch the skies.  

Find more on: Observing the Night Sky

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