The Northern Lights

I’m going to let you into a secret. And this feels a little confessional. It’s a shameful secret and I’m not proud of it.

I used to like watching Iridium Flares and the International Space Station make their leisurely procession overhead most nights, but never really associated it with astronomy. Sure it’s ‘looking up at night’ and we tweet their passage times in advance to encourage others to look up and take an interest in astronomy (when we remember!). But it’s not astronomy is it?

Neither is any Low Earth Orbit astronautery?

It’s just too low down.

The moon’s revealed in a telescope as another world that’s in orbit around us, with a tortured topography and a timeline showing the history of the solar system. So surely that’s astronomy?

The planets, asteroids and comets, they’re definitely astronomy. The distance to some of them can be measured in light minutes or even light hours. Cassini and Voyager (1 and 2) therefore, are real astronauts exploring the mysteries of space.

But not the stuff that just skims our atmosphere?

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So what if an event occurs within our atmosphere, like the aurora? Okay, the sun causes it but without the sun, plants couldn’t turn photons into energy, and nobody would say photosynthesis is astronomy? Sure, the aurora is pleasant and a unique experience for many, but it’s meteorology at best.

Admittedly, the amount of question marks in this article shows that I'm on unsure ground among this subjectively thin ice.

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So, cue a trip to Iceland booked by my wife last year. We like travelling so that’ll be nice. In fact, astronomy has no hold over her whatsoever but she's still been wanting to see the aurora since she was little. So, QED. If an intelligent woman, with no interest in astronomy wants to see the northern lights, it can't be astronomy... either that or I'm making inroads into piquing her curiosity in this 'geeky and nerdy' hobby. Probably the former.

Me on the other hand; not too bothered, but got excited in the run up by the thought of peering into a volcano and standing on the boundary of two giant continental tectonic plates as they move apart.

But a funny thing happened. I started reading about the sun. I learned more about the 11 year solar cycle and the greater propensity for solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) at solar maximum – which this year, 2013/2014 is. I learned about magnetic field lines around both the Earth and the sun.

Normally I scour the weather forecasts every few hours to ascertain the likelihood of clear dark skies to push a telescope into, but I began to watch the space weather from the Advanced Composite Explorer spacecraft to ascertain the likelihood of the right magnetic polarities, solar wind speeds and proton densities for auroral displays.

‘Stay quiet’. ‘Let’s not have a CME’ became the mantras in the week before jetting north. A long quiet spell during solar maximum, in my mind, equating to a greater probability of a CME while I was in Iceland.

The day before flying out, Active Region 1944 – a whopping area of tormented magnetic maelstrom-iness on the Earth-facing side of our sun – was happily channelling millions of tons of plasma along a coronal loop, until the loop snapped and began flinging charged particles toward the Earth. This would take a day, maybe two days to reach Earth and all I needed was a cloud-free night.

A meteorological and space weather Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and 3G data roaming are not a cheap combination. My tip: don’t check your phone every 20 minutes, once an hour is plenty.

Noting the irony of the anti-eponymy, there wasn’t much ice on the ground at sea level in Iceland, which was nice as the temperatures didn’t get below -2ºC, even by 2am. But the scenery was stunning. I was congratulating myself at eschewing any excitement for the northern lights, as the geological delights of this upsurge of lava in the middle of the north Atlantic took my full attention. The moon was at first quarter and cast a nice glow to illuminate the lakes, fjords, snow-capped mountains and occasional geothermal plumes of steam rising up from the ground.

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Long exposure images of the scenery (20 seconds at full aperture and ISO800, if you’re interested) made the ground seem day-lit. The stars and familiar constellations in a blue sky above the mountain backdrop hinted at photographic trickery – but there wasn’t any; snowy moonlit night time photography is a wonder in itself. Having never really got the hang of photography without a telescope attached to the front of the camera, I became transfixed by the beauty it was possible to capture. With a tripod and remote shutter release for stability, it even seemed easy.

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Then it began. A faint flicker on the horizon. Perhaps a cloud. The camera would decide it. 20 seconds later… green & glowing. “Ooh, that’s the aurora!”

Having waited 23 years to see the northern lights, my wife was beaming; content to watch the funnelled charged particles get brighter as they danced above the mountains in this remote and very dark part of the world.

As an astrophotographer, getting it on my camera sensor was more pressing than actually seeing it. Achieving a good accurate infinity focus on the moon took valuable time but paid off as the initial test shot was horribly out of focus.

Now I could just press a button on the remote shutter release every 25 seconds and gaze skyward as we fulfilled a childhood dream and ticked another item off the bucket list.

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A band of brilliant green light arcing overhead, getting brighter then fading away. I turn around for a few moments to see the brilliance of Jupiter and far more stars in Gemini than I ever remembered seeing before – even in a moonlit night sky – but the light show in the north starts up again. This time a thick ribbon that seems suspended by a gossamer veil, twisting and contorting itself like a majestic glowing strand of green RNA.

Each pause in the proceedings made me wish I had a telescope to scan this rich dark sky, far from civilisation, until the clear views gave way to fine cloud, which then gave way to aurora obscuring thicker cloud.

By 2am, the northern lights were so bright that they could be seen glowing through the lighter patches in the cloud and beamed like a torch through the occasional gaps. But the night was effectively over as snow begun to fall. We’d return to the wilderness 70 miles north of Reykjavik each clear night to resume our hunt.

The next day was beautifully clear and the snow had really fallen. Leaving Reykjavik to explore the island’s geology, we witnessed a beautiful 11am sunrise over the snowy plains and mountains and stood on the mid-Atlantic Ridge as the sun reached its 5º zenith, casting long shadows like the Apollo landing images.

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Standing on the line where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving away from each other by an inch each year is quite an awe-inspiring feeling. This line that runs north to south along the length of the Atlantic creates fresh ocean floor, except for here where the Earth’s crust was thin enough that lava could well up and forge a new island 100 million years ago. This divergent movement causes more than a thousand imperceptible earthquakes in Iceland each day, lifts the height of the Tibetan Plateau by 5mm each year and causes the San Andreas Fault subduction stress in California.

Throw geysers, volcanoes, snowy wildernesses and sporadic geothermally heated pools into the mix and Iceland is the craziest, most exciting and educational place in the world.

We didn’t get to see the aurora again on any of our other nights there, despite clear skies. But that one night under the stars, moon, Jupiter and the fabulous light display in the Earth’s upper atmosphere taught me that the aurora is astronomy and it’s totally awesome!

I'm not in the employ of the Icelandic Tourist Board but I'll happily champion this exhilirating and unique island. We're already planning to spend more time there exploring the whole country - astronomy or not.