RESULTS FROM THE 2012 AURORA EXPEDITION TO ALASKA

 

An overhead aurora as photographed by Paul Maley October 13, 2012 at 415am Alaska Time from about 15 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska.  This is one example of a still camera shot, exposed for 15 seconds and pointed straight up. The lens used was 14mm f/2.8 set for ISO1600. Constellation of Perseus is centered.

The first Ring of Fire Expeditions aurora tour was launched October 11, 2012 with 4 nights of aurora viewing planned from near the vicinity of Fairbanks, AK. Our group of 15 observers came specifically for this rare opportunity, attempting to take advantage of solar maximum and a new moon situation.

I have been trying to come up with words adequate to describe what we saw. The “wow factor” was off the charts  and the visual sight (on the second night)  more incredible than all the astro phenomena I have witnessed up to now. According to local experienced aurora viewers, we saw auroras at a 5-level on a scale of 0 – 10, and yet it was so impressive as to mesmerize everyone in the group.  Perhaps one could say “the heavenly lights were dancing for us” as provided by David Weber.

To get to Fairbanks meant flying over some cool glaciers as captured by David Weber in the image below.

Temperatures during the tour ranged from 28 deg F to about 15 deg F and the first light snowfall of the season occurred during that week. As is normal, clouds and rain/snow were forecast throughout the period but we were quite fortunate that the first two nights out of four were mostly clear.   One thing about forecasting weather in Alaska is that such forecasts are notoriously variable.

The auroral activity forecast for each day during our tour ranged between 1 and 2.

During the trip we observed several optical phenomena. The first was a halo around the sun at Chena Lodge.

Ice crystals formed this halo. Photo by P. Maley

The second was a sun pillar seen shortly before local sunset.

An intense beam of sunlight shoots up from the horizon in this shot. Photo by P. Maley.

The ROFE team posed for a group photo at Mount Aurora Skiland Lodge.

 

Team photo. Left to right back row: Bob Campbell, Dick Davidson, Jim Schuck, David Flack, Lynn Palmer, (hidden but in blue hat Maggie Jorgensen), Peter McNally, Andrew Jorgensen; left to right front row: Paul Maley, Charlie Heebner, Bev Heebner, David Weber, Michael Schramm, Michelle Otake, Donna Yamada. Photo by P. Maley. Note the prominent constellation of Ursa Major and of course, the aurora.

We had one long 18 hour excursion to the Arctic Circle, 156 miles north of Fairbanks. During this trip, dinner consisted of a not-ready-to-eat meal equivalent to a military MRE.  It was tricky to prepare and and not very appetizing. At least one person burned fingers handling it during the heating process.

Above is a not-ready-to-eat TV style dinner. We won’t be chowing down on this next trip! Box top retained by Bev Heebner.

The outdoor thermometer at Chena Lodge on which we kept a wary eye. Photo by D. Weber.

Hoarfrost (white ice crystals, loosely deposited on the ground or exposed objects, that form on cold clear nights when heat losses into the open skies cause objects to become colder than the surrounding air) is seen in the Christmas tree-like setting along the highway. Photo by D. Flack.

Sunset along the Arctic Circle tour route. Photo by D. Flack.

Igloo inside the Chena Ice Museum. D. Flack photo.

While we fully expected to encounter Alaska wildlife, the most we could say is that we saw at least one raven, some ducks and tracks of one or more imaginary animals.  Our bus driver did claim to have seen two moose by the road.

While at Chena Lodge we did see the bear warning signs but never saw any sign of one.

Above: The famous Trans Alaska Pipeline. Photo by R. Davidson.

Part of a Fairbanks mural. L. Palmer photo.

Domestic animals were spotted.  In this photo near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks campus you can see a reindeer.  L. Palmer photo.

In this photo below by D. Flack, 4 rather large geese at Chena Lodge are being kept in line by Lynn Palmer.

AURORAS!

This is what we came for and they delivered big time. An unexpected geomagnetic storm was in progress the nights of Oct. 11/12 and 12/13.  On the first night we thought we saw the best possible displays. But it was the second night when things really started to pop. Photos below are not sequential. The more intense the aurora below, the more likely it occurred on Oct. 12/13.

Part of the group inside our protected building at Skiland. Photo by Donna Yamada. Front row (left to right) Michelle Otake, Charlie Heebner, Bev Heebner. Back row (left to right) Paul Maley, Lynn Palmer, David Flack, Michael Schramm, Maggie Jorgensen, Donna Yamada, Peter McNally, Andrew Jorgensen.

Wearing the proper clothes for observing aurora is important. See the above photo. For 15 deg F to 28 deg F weather most observers had ski boots with one or two sets of wool socks; one or two layers of pants, one or two layers of tops, wool hat, two sets of gloves (one with finger holes for operating a camera). A face mask or balaclava was not necessary unless there was wind (very light during this trip) or colder temps. Lip balm for chapped lips and staying hydrated in a dry environment was important.

WHAT CAUSES AURORAS?

Auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth’s upper atmosphere above 80 km (50 mi), from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen and nitrogen atoms returning from an excited state to ground state.   They are ionized or excited by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric particles being funneled down and accelerated along the Earth’s magnetic field lines; excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon, or by collision with another atom or molecule:

Oxygen emissions are green or brownish-red, depending on the amount of energy absorbed. Nitrogen emissions blue or red; blue if the atom regains an electron after it has been ionized, red if returning to ground state from an excited state.
 

Compare the image below, taken by Astronaut Don Pettit on the International Space Station of aurora he observed, with our humble efforts that follow. He used a Nikon D3s, ISO6400, 24mm f/1.4 aspheric Nikon lens. He states ” I set it to continuous high and bracket 5 at one stop each.  I set the upper exposure to about 1/20th second so I can get all five off in just over one second and then take continuous rapid sequences using a depressed cable release button. ” For stacked images he used 1/20, 1/5 and 1.2 seconds, attempting to mask out the blurry part of the longer exposures.

 The” auroral oval” over the north pole with the sunset line behind it.  A stacked image as a result of a series of high burst images shot every 2 seconds. Photo by D. Pettit.

The first set is from Bob Campbell who used a Nikon D80. They are ordered simply to show the results of different time exposures. Depending on the activity level (that is, the speed of changing particles as they move about the atmosphere) details are either sharp or blurred. The shutter has to be left open for some number of seconds in order to try to capture the phenomenon that is seen. Often it is difficult to judge how this will impact the outcome.

All of these photos were taken with a 35mm DSLR of one type or another with the camera firmly set on a tripod. A shutter release was used to control the exposure. Point and shoot cameras DO NOT WORK in this situation.  Although the temperatures were below freezing, they were not extreme enough to either drain batteries or to create the need to put hand warmers around the camera body.

The first photos of the first night were taken at Skiland. We saw evidence of a faint aurora.  30 sec @ f3.5 ISO 800; B. Campbell photo. Note the constellation of Orion rising, Taurus, the Pleiades and Jupiter.

30 sec @ f3.5  ISO 1600. B. Campbell photo. Note the constellations of Delphinus and Aquila.

 20 sec @ f3.5 ISO 1600. B. Campbell photo. Note the constellations of Cetus, Pegasus and Andromeda.

13 sec @ f3.5 ISO 1600. B. Campbell photo.  Note the constellations of Andromeda (top) and Pegasus.

30 sec @f3.5 ISO 800. B. Campbell photo. Note the constellations of Taurus, Auriga; Pleiades and Jupiter are also present.

Raging aurora. Photo by D. Yamada. Gemini, Taurus, Orion and the Pleiades can be seen.  Taken with Canon T3i, ISO800, 15mm lens, f/2.8, 8 seconds.

 Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from Mount Aurora Skiland. Note the constellation of Gemini on the right.

 

Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from Mount Aurora Skiland. Note Ursa Major.  Here they have a 24 hour web cam going which is pointed due North.

But the real show occurred the next night. At sunset we arrived at the Arctic Circle and even before it got dark we noticed it was almost completely overcast. But at 715pm a greenish arc appeared through the cloud! Then it disappeared some seconds later, reappearing in different form off and on over the next hour.  As the night progressed the cloud melted away and we were treated to awe insprining sky paintings that could only be described as the ultimate bucket list event of cataclysmic, eye-popping proportions.  The normal greenish tint was often replaced with red.

Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Note the constellation of Lyra at bottom, Draco on the right.

Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Note Ursa Major on its right side.


Some auroras were bright enough to be visible behind the clouds as in the image above.   Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Note constellation of Delphinus throug the hole in the cloud, upper right.


Others were so bright as to almost bright enough to cast shadows. Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Note constellations of Hercules and Lyra.

Above, is this a forest fire? No, it is an aurora. Photo by R. Davidson.  All Davidson photos that follow were taken with Nikon D800 with a 20mm Sigma lens at f/1.8. Exposures were either 10, 15 or 20 seconds. Note the constellations of Perseus and Auriga. Pleiades are just above the trees in lower center.

Some auroras were ‘evolutionary’ in that they changed form in a matter of seconds as they appeared to blow across the sky. See the next three images.  Note the star pattern of the great square in Pegasus.

 Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8.

Other characteristic shapes included beams as in the next image by P. Maley:

 Below: Two curtains with what looks like a ‘tornado’ in between. Photo by R. Davidson. Note Ursa Major.

Above: the ‘tornado-like’ feature in the previous slide has morphed into a second curtain. Also notice the short track of either a satellite or meteor. Photo by R. Davidson.

In the photo above you can see evidence of no less then 7 auroral curtains. Photo by R. Davidson.

Below: a slow moving rolling curtain with accordion overlay. Photo by R. Davidson.  Note Corona Borealis and Hercules constellations.

Below, a faster moving curtain and accordion pattern as recorded by R. Davidson. Note the constellations of Delphinus, Aquila.

A piano keyboard shape (below). Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8.

Then there is the rare opportunity while at the Arctic Circle (latitude 66 deg 03 min along the Dalton Highway) to self-time a photo. Here Paul Maley and Lynn Palmer are silhouetted against a bright aurora with the constellations of Corona Borealis, Sagitta and Aquila visible. The flash was added during the 15 second exposure by David Weber. Stars appear as points as long as the camera is stable and the exposure is less than 30 seconds.

Then there is a curtain shape (below). Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. Constellations of Delphinus, Sagitta, and Aquila are visible.

 Composition of aurora images can be challenging but having foreground material such as birch trees can be useful.  Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Constellations of Draco and Hercules are visible.

As the night wore on, the level of activity increased to where at times it seemed to fill the entire sky (below).  Literally the appearance of each wisp of aurora changed by the second! That is why exposures had to be kept reasonably slow. The brightness helped to embed the image and it seemed the brighter the aurora got, the faster it would move.  The fainter, the slower it moved.

 Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Constellations of Pegasus and Andromeda are visible.

 Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway.  Constellations of Pegasus and Andromeda are visible.

We also witnessed a ‘saw blade pattern” (below).

 Photo by P. Maley, ISO1600, 5sec, 14mm f/2.8. from the Dalton Highway. Note the constellations of Perseus and Auriga, also the Pleiades and Jupiter (above wires).

Compare and contrast the above image with the preceding one showing more definition of edge structure. Photo from ISS by Don Pettit.

 MENACING AURORAS!

Getting underneath an aurora can be a scary experience as seen in some of the images I shot below.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo. Constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga,  and Aries are visible in this and succeeding images.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.

ISO 1600, 15 seconds, 14mm f/2.8. P. Maley photo.

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