I am counting every little star in this shot for such amazing luck. No one can appreciate just how thankful I am. After eleven years of chasing countless auroras, everything came together during these two panic stricken minutes last Thursday night for what I consider the pinnacle of my panoramic photography work.
Please visit the Aurora Albums in the Gallery to see more images
Aural glow under southern constellations - Township of Cave
I barely understood what the lights where but had heard a lot about the spectacle after the November 2002 shows. This was to be my first photographic encounter with our Southern Lights. I had made some preparation by buying high speed film and Alan Gilmore of the Mt John Observatory said he would give me a call when they were next visible.
My Camera need attention too. It had a damaged base plate from a deer fence incident and was wobbly on the tripod. I worked out a neat configuration of packaging tape which held it on tightly and in a such a way the film back would still open.
Within a short time I got the call and in a hazy evening during 18 August 2003 I headed out as a total novice. I decided the clearest vantage point would be from the Brothers Range over looking the township of Cave . The rays were clearly visible above the head lights. Before I could get out and find a place to make photos they shrank into nothing. I headed up on to the Brothers and continually scanned the sky in all directions. I didn't even know where to look.
There was a dense red glow everywhere. The atmosphere was so heavy the insulators on the power lines were fizzing. Then after several hours, a drained thermos, and many chapters of my talking book, it happened. No mistaking where either.
What a show a great show. For half an hour the rays reached up from the green, coloured pink and drifted, the sky pulsed into a crescendo streaming glows, my heart jumped and the film underexposed.
All that could be rescued was the southern green glow above the dark line of the Hunters Hills. For long after I wondered why they were so called. As a kid we went there to hunt wallabies, so I thought the hills were for 'us hunters'. I was to learn of Nimrod, and his Hunters of old Mesopotamia. That high point in the distance, the dominant landmark for all my life, is called Mt Nimrod. Click!
During the lull, I had noticed the positron of Crux (the Southern Cross) and made a stack of four shots for the vertical panorama shown above. Stitching these together had to be very precise as any astronomer would instantly recognise any double ups and omissions in the stars. A better exposure of the lights of Cave was merged in and presto.
This shot was becoming very meaningful to me, but for some reason I needed to outline the constellations as well. So here we have Nimrod below astral charts - the same astral charts that predicted Abraham's birth? Not likely. This is the Southern Hemisphere. Then, there is the erie 'bonfire' light in the sky to consider. A version from Babel times? Hmmm.
Suddenly I had to know everything about Auroras, then the sun's physics and the rest of the Cosmos. The pages on Pursuing the Aurora are the current result and information on the phenomena can be found there.
Time Running Out
One thing was clear. If I was to ever get good photos I was going to have not only understand but live and breathe the heavenly lights. Time is running out. Yes, the probability of aurora over the next five years is rapidly diminishing. This is due to an eleven year cycle and we are well into the solar minimum phase - at time of low solar activity, few solar flares, little shaking of the earths magnetic fields, and seldom charging of the plasmic lights in the sky.
Within a few weeks Alan called again. We were absolutely clouded in. By this time I had learn 't how many people around the world were prepared to drive or fly hundreds of miles for the chance to see the Aurora. So a 80km dash into the high country seemed very reasonable. Also a chance for my wife to see her first ever view. My youngest child was not to be left out either and by midnight on 30 October 2003 we were sitting under Mt John gazing in awe. The moon was just setting but in no way could it drown the intensity of the lights. Another cracker of a night - Thank you Alan.
While my camera clicked away, and for no logical reason, my spectator partners retreated back into the Landrover with asthma attacks.
SUN HURLS ANOTHER FLARE AT THE EARTH
"Thu, 30 Oct 2003 - Just when we thought it was over, the Sun blasted another gigantic X-class flare directly at the Earth. The flare was detected by the GOES satellite on October 29 at 2037 GMT (3:37 pm EST), and it peaked about 10 minutes later. The solar storm from this flare should reach us in a little less than a day, and cause another round of communication disruptions and beautiful auroras. The timing of two X-class flares happening this close together, and aimed directly at the Earth is unprecedented in solar astronomy." - Universe Today
Much later I was to learn this was during one of the most intensive periods of Solar Activity ever recorded. Something like 140 explosions on the surface of the Sun in just a few days culminating in the granddaddy of them all measured at X28 but estimated at X40-45. So powerful, it exceeded design limits of many spacecraft, knocking out instruments, sapping fuel and shortening mission life. The unknown levels of radiation also destroyed our concept of a safe zone for astronauts in space.
A few days later I was starting to understand magnetometer data I was finding on the internet especially from Hobart, and was ready for the what was to be the shortest and sweetest Aurora from the brightest flare on record.
A Model Show
On 3 November I got to see the hugest parting shot ever from SOHO's image of the Sun, as the exploding set of sun spots rounded the suns western rim. Would this blast give us a glancing blow as it headed away at a tangent?
Soon, beyond expectations, aural indications were perfect. Timing, crystal clear sky and new moon also coincided. Warnings and Reports started to roll into. Still thinking about the improbability of all this coming together I casually drove over to Adair just beyond the lights of The road there is nicely elevated offering 180 degrees of clear view of the Southern Sky.
I set up the camera and watched the green arc rise from the distant horizon. It approached, anticipation grew, and my cell phone rang. A client wanted a new job done urgently. The rays were beginning to break out all over the sky. There was not a lot to toss up about. After all my hunting, the aurora was simply fronting up in its most magnificent finery, saying "well here I am". I suggested the caller go and gaze into heaven. This worked very well and we got the job done the next day.
Getting the film back I was very surprised to see the Southern Cross slap bang in the middle and slung low to the horizon in this image from 4 November 2003.
Flares fired on for days but the rays stayed away in the distant South usually obscured by cloudy nights. Then a nice one happened over a foreground of ground fog and I was very excited about the unusualness. But alas it was all just too far away and dark, barely registering above the lumpy grain on my film.
Not to be discouraged I reckoned on 20 November 2003 there was to be the one that could be another great one! That good-old set of sun spots would be rotating back into view. But would they still have enough zing?
Ready and waiting I lay in my sleeping bag, on my deck chair. I was on the beach near St Andrews under a perfectly clear sky. Green glowed as the twilight dimmed. This was to be the one! Timing was impeccable. The first rays shot up in the distance. It was rolling up fast. Camera ready.The sou'west breeze freshened into a firm blow. Then clouds were scurrying in, obliterating all. Oh the disappointment!
It must have been some show, judging by the colourful curtains veiled behind cloudy peepholes in the storm. Rays teasingly poked up and waved above. But the only shots I got were well eastward in the distance where the storm had yet to travel. For another night the aurora returned Reports flooded in with rave reviews - they must have been great shows and our cloud stole both.
Unexpected and dumbfounding shows.
By this stage I was getting some clues about when to expect Auroras but still headed out on many a fools mission - just in case I told myself! There may not be many more opportunities. Most times the aurora was evident and by comparing my sightings with other reports I began to see patterns in the data I was collecting from various internet sites. Even if clouds ruined the view or they were low powered, I still went out just to see if my and everyone else predictions were working. Eventually I found indicators I could rely on locally. With photography technique improving, the hunt turned very serious.
The next year continued to produce some of the biggest activity ever recorded. Despite utmost attempts I missed most due to bad weather or wrong timing.
to be continued....
Tue, 24 May 2005 - One of the most intense bursts of solar radiation in more than 50 years happened in mid-January this year, and scientists are still mulling over the implications for current space weather theories. Another interesting aspect of this flare is how quickly it traveled through the solar system. Normally a proton shower associated with a flare takes several hours to reach the Earth, but we were hit with the first particles in just 15 minutes. This could have important implications for future space weather warning systems, to keep astronauts safe from solar storms. - UniverseToday
My research on how to Peruse the Aurora and Links to resources can be found here