Internet aurorae or why I must go to Alaska someday

Picture the scene. It was lunchtime today and I was sitting at my desk looking at the weather forecast for this evening, hoping that it would be clear to do some observing. The signs weren’t good. Outside it was pretty gloomy and the latest satellite image was showing a lovely bank of thick rain laden cloud moving towards Bristol. And so I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no observing tonight.

A stunning auroral display from the NICT camera, grabbed live today (02.11.08)
Credit: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology

Then I happened to check an astro forum I regularly read. One new post caught my eye with a link to a “live aurora webcam”. These live webcams looking at astronomical objects can be tricky to get right, especially looking at something like the aurora. Nevertheless I clicked the link and waited for the webcam image to load. The moment the image popped onto the screen, the glum feelings of tonight’s lost observing session evaporated. Staring back at me was a ribbon of green light stretching over a dark horizon. At first I thought that it must have been a placeholder image of a previous apparition, it was so good. But it wasn’t. I had logged on and tuned in right in the middle of a beautiful green auroral display!

I watched the next few images come through every ten minutes and saw the green ribbon twisting and moving between each frame. Having seen Joanna Lumley chase the Northern Lights, in a recent BBC programme, only to get a fleeting glimpse of them one night, I figured I was pretty lucky to log on at this very moment. Soon I had to get back to work, but just before I left the office this evening, I checked back to see that the Sun was just beginning to rise in Alaska (where the camera is based). Funny, I thought, as I looked outside to see that the Sun here in Bristol had just set. How small the world is. By the time I got home to my computer, the morning Sun was lighting the foreground and where, only a few hours before, the Northern Lights were dancing in the sky, now there was a stunning azure blue sky and a snowy Alaskan panorama.

Now you’re probably wondering where this webcam link is. Well it’s here. The webcam is provided by the International Arctic Environment Research Project Group of National Institute of Information and Communications Technology based in Japan (thanks guys!). The camera is located at the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska and according to the NICT website it’s a FujiFilm FinePix S2Pro DSLR. The NICT website has loads of information about the camera, its location as well as good times throughout the year to log in, to try and see aurorae. It also has a handy applet to tell you when (In Alaskan time and UT) the best observation period for the day is.

As I write/post this on Wednesday evening it’s afternoon in Alaska, but in a few hours time the Sun will set and then the time for looking for that tell-tale glow will begin. Why not head over there if you have a spare minute? I’m going to be logging in every now and then to see what I can see, probably when the good old British weather keeps the stars from me. I’ll make sure to update my Twitter feed if I see something! It’s these little adventures in astronomy that keep our interest fired up inside us. And I can certainly say I have been cheerful all evening, despite the clouds outside. Happy aurorae hunting!

Updated 02.11.08 to add a picture from the NICT camera with kind permission of Dr. Yasuhiro Murayama, National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.

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3 comments

  1. I visited South Alaska in Feb ’07 but never got to see any aurorae. An aurora trip is certainly on my list of things to do. Thanks for the tweet; just taken a look as I leave this comment and I can see a faint green glow – amazing!

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