Solar storm smacks Earth, puts on celestial show

Posted by Eric Betz
on Thursday, October 08, 2015

A green and purple cosmic rain falls on Earth October 7, 2015, thanks to a well-placed solar storm. TravelQuest trip astronomer Paul Deans snapped this photo from the deck of Hurtigruten's Nordnorge during Astronomy magazine's 2015 Norway Aurora, Culture, and Scenic Wonders tour. Credit: Paul Deans
Our ship was slowly trudging north up the Norwegian Coast toward the Arctic Circle last night when the captain announced the celestial show we'd all been expecting --  the aurora borealis. Before the night was out, green clouds would blanket the sky from horizon to horizon.

These great, green cumuli would linger overhead for a while and then collapse into long concentric arcs that gradually began to dance. The twisting bands grew serated edges that chattered and shook like some heavenly musician running her fingers down the keys of a piano. Then the arc disappeared. And in a most predictable fashion, the celestial clouds reappeared and the dance began again.

For those who don't know, Astronomy magazine partners with the science-themed touring company TravelQuest International to put on adventures all over the world. Currently, I'm on a tour of Norway and its northern nights with 27 Astronomy magazine readers. We're currently at sea -- somehow there's WiFi north of the Arctic Circle -- headed north to Kirkenes, where we'll return to land and learn about the ancient Sami people, who have long subsisted off reindeer here at the end of the world.

And our trip's timing couldn't have been more perfect. On day one, Monday, we flew from Oslo to Trondheim to meet our ship. That night, a solar storm struck Earth and lit up Trondheim's skies with aurora that wowed even the locals. Luck was clearly on our side. As we left port yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started issuing alerts about potential spacecraft hazards caused by incoming solar radiation. But that couldn't have prepared us for what was to come.

After our group had already spent nearly an hour watching the northern lights, NOAA announced high speed solar wind was washing over the planet. Nightsky watchers saw aurora in places as far south as the United Kingdom and the northern United States. The show here at the epicenter was unreal. At a camera store in the small town of Bodo today, the shopkeeper told me he'd rarely seen such a sight. Crewmembers on board our ship, Hurtigruten's Nordnorge, said the purples we saw were something special.

So, as we gear up for night three, Earth is in store for yet another round of action. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center is calling for an 80 percent chance of action within the auroral oval due to the still heightened solar wind.

If you're fortunate enough to live in the northern reaches of the United State or at a similar latitude, drive outside of town and have a look up. What you see might surprise you.

Here's to clear skies!

Eric Betz is an associate editor of Astronomy. He's on Twitter: @ericbetz.

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