Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Aurora Hunting

Aurora Hunting

Speak to almost anybody about the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and they will tell you that it is one of their dreams to see them.  I am of course one of those people; probably even more so because I’m such a fan of astronomy.  In 1996, my Mum saw an advert in a newspaper about Aurora Flights.  Of course we booked straight away! On these flights all of the cabin lights are turned off, and if air traffic allows, so are the lights on the wings of the aeroplane.  This gives you a view of the night sky that you are unlike to have experienced anywhere before.  So, in November that year, a few members of my family and I set out to Liverpool Airport and with much excitement boarded the flight. Unfortunately, we were one of only a very small number of flights that year which hadn’t seen a thing. No aurora whatsoever. However, getting the opportunity to see the sky in so much detail was something I have never forgotten. 

Learning all about how the aurora form during my Astronomy GCSE course made me even more desperate to see it.   Mum and I keep a close eye on the aurora alerts on Twitter, and anytime there is a chance of seeing the aurora at lower latitudes, we get in the car and drive as far North as we can in order to try and see something.  To date we have never succeeded. So when my boyfriend Mark saw a tweet from Pete Lawrence (Sky at Night presenter) last year advertising an additional aurora flight from Manchester Airport, we jumped at the chance!  I turned 40 at the beginning of this year, so we decided that this would be my birthday present. What an incredible gift!  Mum also decided to come and give it another try. So, on 12th March we set off to Manchester ready for another aurora hunting adventure.

We arrived at the Radisson Blu Hotel at Manchester airport nice and early, ready for our pre-flight presentation at 6:45pm and grabbed front row seats!  We had exchanged a few tweets with Pete Lawrence prior to the day of the flight so we briefly went over and said hello in person before returning to our seats. The crowd of people was probably the most varied of any group of people I’ve been in a room with, testament to the draw of the aurora. While we waited for the presentation to begin, there were several slides showing frequently asked questions about the aurora flights.  They first began in 1997 and were initially for viewing the comet Halle-Bopp.  Once the comet had gone, the company realised they could continue to fly passengers up to see other astronomical phenomenon, such as the aurora.  We would be flying in either in an Airbus 320/321, Boeing 737 or Embracer.  During the flight we would reach an altitude of 34,000 - 40,000 feet.  There were also slides with a brief biography of the main astronomers who are involved with these flights. This included Pete Lawrence, Nigel Bradbury and Paul Money.  Before the presentation began we had the opportunity to buy 2 books, one about the Aurora by Pete Lawrence, and one by Paul Money which shows a month by month guide to what is visible in the sky throughout 2013. There was a special offer if we bought the 2 together, an offer too good to refuse! Scheduled take off was at 21:30 but before we went across to the terminal building to check in, we had our 1 hour presentation.

Before the presentation started, the Captain of the aurora flight popped into to say hello and have a few words with us. His name was Captain Mainwaring, so of course there were the usual jokes relating to Dad’s Army - that poor man must be so sick of hearing the words, “Don’t panic!” Then the presentation began with a half hour talk by the astronomer Nigel Bradbury.  He started by taking us on an astronomical journey; from ancient stone circles to space flight, from the Solar System out to the Milky Way, out to the Local Group, and then the Hubble Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field. Each was accompanied by stunning photos.  He showed the flight path we would taking later that night, a flight that took us North until we reached “Station” - the area around which we would fly in an oval shape that went from the Shetland Isles across to the Faroe Islands (which lie approximately half way between Iceland and Norway) and back again.  He then went on to show us the constellations that we were likely to see out of each side of the aeroplane window during the flight.  He told us that the cabin lights would be switched off about 20 minutes before we reached station to allow our eyes to have become fully dark adapted by the time we get there.  He concluded with a list of rules for the flight. These included no flash photography or checking LCD display screens on digital cameras.  He explained that most compact cameras would not capture the aurora so if you had brought one of those, the best thing you could do was to leave it in your bag, sit back and enjoy the flight and leave the photography to the experts who would post the photos on the website after the flight.  We were asked if we would regularly rotate in our seats to allow everybody an equal chance of seeing out of the window.  Finally, we were told that the toilets would be out of bounds during the time we were in darkness, so we were advised to use the airport toilets before boarding!

The second talk was by Pete Lawrence and was titled “In Search of the Northern Lights - An Illustrated Talk”.  During this presentation, he explained the mechanism by which the aurora is formed.  In very simple terms, the sun constantly emits streams of charged particles; this is called the solar wind.  These particles interact with the magnetic field which surrounds the Earth.  If the conditions are right, these particles will then be streamed along the magnetic field lines and directed towards the Northern and Southern Polar Regions. Once they reach Earth’s thermosphere, they “excite” the gas atoms which are present there and this causes the gases to glow.  Oxygen will glow orange or green, whereas nitrogen will glow blue or white.  This is similar to how a neon or argon tube light works.  The auroral arch is present pretty much at all times around the poles, but at times of increased solar activity, the aurora will be more intense and will reach lower latitudes.  He then went on to explain the different kinds of aurora; diffuse and discrete.  The aurora is not restricted to the Northern Polar regions; the Aurora Australis is just as prevalent, but those regions do not fall over as much populated land mass as the Northern Polar Regions, hence why the “Northern Lights” are more frequently reported and photographed.   Finally, Pete went on to give us our forecast for the flight. He told us that the aurora forecast can be found at www.spaceweather.com - our forecast for the flight was moderate.  However, he went on to explain that they can never really give us any certainty. 50:50 is about the best odds they can predict before any of these flights.

So, it was finally time to go and check in. The excitement as we filtered out of the conference room was palpable! Check in was smooth and before we knew it we had boarded our Boeing 737.  Once we had taken off we were served a light snack and before we knew it, it was time for the cabin lights to be turned off.  We went through a few checks to ensure that anybody who was using a camera had turned the LCD display and the flash off, as any light would spoil the night vision for everybody else.  All three of us had covered our LCDs with red acetate sheets, but just to be sure we didn’t ruin ours or anybody else’s night adaptation we switched our screens off. Even before our eyes had time to adapt to the dark the view from the window was incredible!  Nigel was sitting on the left side of the cabin, Pete on the right, and they took it in turns to give us a running commentary of what we could see out of each window.  As there were three of us sitting together we took it in turns to sit by the window and look out at the constellations. We had been advised to bring a small mirror and this was really useful for looking at parts of the sky that were obscured by the cabin walls - after all, aeroplanes are not known for their large windows!  There was some military air traffic in the area so it was a while before the lights on the aircraft wing were turned off. Once they had been turned off, the sky looked beyond stunning; we were effectively floating through space in a giant tube, with no source of light pollution whatsoever. It was better than I had remembered it from my previous aurora hunting flight!  I was having trouble getting good focus with my binoculars so I put them away and just enjoyed the view with my eyes.  Because of the movement of the aeroplane, it was difficult to get a good photograph of the constellations, and this was made especially difficult by the fact that I couldn’t review what photos I had taken.  Because of this I wasn’t able to test how well focused my camera was, so I didn’t know whether I would get any decent photos of the aurora should we be treated to a display later.
About half an hour after the cabin lights had been dimmed we reached station. We could just make out the lights on the Norwegian coast, some 200 miles away from our window.  Nigel was speaking about what could be seen from the left hand side of the aircraft. He said, “Out of over 200 flights we have only had about 8 where we didn’t see any auroral activity at all, and of course tonight could be one of those nights.... However, it isn’t going to be because we have an auroral arch visible out towards the North!” The atmosphere suddenly shifted from one of anticipation to one of pure electricity! Everybody on the left hand side of the plane was clamouring for window space. For us on the other side of the cabin, we could just make out a grey coloured mist, which could be seen more clearly if we used our mirror.  The grey coloured auroral arch covered a huge area and when we caught glimpses of it through the other windows, it seemed to light up the sky on that side of the aeroplane.  Before too long we turned and we got a chance to see it for ourselves! The aurora was like grey/green ribbons, and with averted vision they looked brighter.  Certain areas would suddenly brighten, and then the brighter area would appear to travel along like a shimmering pattern along the ribbons.  I tried so hard to get some photos, but I found that I was becoming so engrossed in getting my camera settings correct that it was spoiling my enjoyment, so I just decided to put the camera down and enjoy my turn at the window.  We probably had four good passes with the aurora on our side of the plane, so once we had divided our time in the window seat between the three of us, it didn’t feel like very long to actually watch it at any one time.  If we squashed up, 2 of us could see out of the window at once; it’s a good job we all knew each other well!  Mum and Mark also had a go at taking some photographs during their time in the window seat.  The period of time when the aurora was most active was unfortunately when the aeroplane was facing the wrong way for us.  But there was no doubt that we had seen the aurora, and it was every bit as magical as I expected it to be.  Having wanted to see this all of my life, I actually felt quite emotional when I finally did! The thing that surprised us all was that with the naked eye the aurora was more of a grey/green than the bright green colour we are so used to seeing on photographs. We are bombarded with amazing images of the aurora on a daily basis, so I for one expected to see it like that. However, camera sensors are far more sensitive than the naked eye, so those photographs we are so used to seeing were giving us unrealistic expectations.  Cameras also often pick up the purple tones that our eyes just can’t see. Throughout the time we were flying in a loop, Nigel and Pete continued with their commentary.  The view out of the window when the aurora was on our side was quite something, but I’ll openly admit that I was no long looking at the stars - I just wanted to drink in as much of the aurora as I possibly could in the limited time we had.

As we finally turned to fly south again, I felt sad. I didn’t want to leave behind the beautiful scene.  But as we flew away, we could still see the aurora off the right hand wing, so I tried again to get a couple of photographs. Given the lack of any way to review my photographs, I wasn’t expecting them to come out at all, so I had a couple of tries then went back to just enjoying looking at it, once again taking it in turns to look out of the window.

Before long it was time for the cabin lights to be switched back on, but I still couldn’t help but look out of the window.  We landed back at Manchester Airport at 1am.  As soon as we had landed we had our mobile phones switched on and began tweeting and texting friends to tell them about our amazing experience!  We got home around 2am.  I noticed that the clouds had cleared out to the East. I was exhausted but couldn’t resist dragging the telescope out and having a quick look at Saturn.  I never tire of looking at that beautiful ringed planet, and it’s amazing to think that Saturn also has auroral displays at its poles.  We had a quick look at our photos, but we were too exhausted to upload them that night. We fell into bed at about 3am, bone tired, but exhilarated from our aurora hunting adventure.  I’ve done two aurora flights now. For our next adventure I would love to see the aurora in the sky above me with no constraints from aircraft windows. I want to experience being out in the open, cold wind in my hair, while the aurora dances above my head...

If you would like to see our photos from our adventures, here are the links to our Flickr sets:

If you would like more information about aurora flights, and to look at photos from the experts from previous flights, please visit http://www.auroraflights.co.uk/

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