Keep Looking Up

I chalked up a personal first yesterday; I saw an aurora with my own eyes and it was every bit as remarkable as I could have hoped for. I was not alone in sharing this special moment – anyone outside before midnight without clouds overhead in New Zealand (and, in fact, much of the world outside of the tropics) could have done the same, as these displays are driven by a once-in-decades solar storm.

Ironically, when the possibility of an aurora was mentioned I was the most cautious member of my household. As an astronomer, I am often asked for media commentary on upcoming celestial events and it usually pays to throw in a word of caution to manage expectations, thus warding off possible disappointment* and aurora often look far better in photographs than to the naked eye. But I was wrong. Very wrong.

The other thing I knew was that aurora (and this did hold up) are best seen from dark skies outside city limits so my family hatched a plan to have dinner in outside of Auckland and then head on to Muriwai Beach. But a quick snap from the car window on the motorway showed a distinctive red tinge in the southern sky that was invisible to the naked eye. So we called the BBQ joint (the excellent Morepork), switched our table booking to take-out and headed straight to the beach.

The next surprise was that your phone is your friend. On arrival, the sky was dimly lit in a way that could have been the remnants of dusk were it not brighter to the south than in the west. As we got to the beach I saw Orion peeping around the clouds in front of it and a quick snap with a phone camera showed a riot of colour.

That was its own small revelation. For all that may we may need to remind ourselves to look up from our phones from time to time – to touch some grass – a modern phone is effectively a set of night vision goggles, albeit one that operates with a few seconds delay. Last night’s display was the first global aurora event of this scale since high quality phone cameras became ubiquitous and I had not appreciated how they can enhance the experience of what can often be a delicate celestial phenomenon. Don’t forget to spend some time just to sit and take in the sky but having a phone with you will only make it better.

As the night wore on the sky became visibly red to the naked eye – an amazing experience wherever it happens, but one that is truly unusual in a place like Auckland that is closer to the equator than it is to the pole.

And for me, this photo of the Southern Cross made my night…

Or this…

If you missed out there is every chance that the display will happen again tonight. Check the weather, get yourself somewhere dark and hope for the best. At worst you get some time out under the stars and at best a reminder that the world – and the universe we live in – is a remarkable place. You can find forecasts for Dunedin at Otago University and global forecasts at the NOAA space weather prediction center.

Keep looking up.

* The one exception is a total eclipse of the sun. That remains on my bucket list and by all accounts it is a genuinely spectacular experience.

PS This blog is now well over ten years old. At times I’ve gone months without posting, and the world of blogging itself has undergone big changes since I started, with the rise (and recent fall) of Twitter and other forms of social media. Right now you might notice some formatting glitches as I recently moved the site to WordPress (from Squarespace) and I am in the process of sorting them out.

But I am also setting up a mailing list for people who want to subscribe and get the blog in their inbox as a newsletter. It is eclectic (whatever catches my eye, from cosmology to the fun of biking to work) and will be low-traffic, but if want to get ahead of the curve you can sign up via this link at Buttondown.

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