Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Viewing the Northern Lights.

One of the most lovely things to see in your whole life is the Aurora Borealis, or The Northern Lights. If it's really dark, and you're far enough north, then you might get a wonderful show. When I was in college back in the 1980's in Minnesota, I saw them in the skies. The aurora looked like a shimmering curtain being drawn from the north, covering half the sky. There were some ambient lights, so it was dimmed, but I could see it shimmer and move quickly, on the order of seconds. It was due to a big solar storm, and the Earth was getting the brunt of it. It made for a wonderful night.

To see them tonight, you really need to get out from under city lights. If you're in a major urban area, you need to get about 50 miles away at least. The trick is that you need to be able to see the Milky Way in the sky, if it's up. If you can see that, then you're good. If you've never seen the Milky Way in the sky, now is your chance to learn how to do it. First, drive north. North is better for northern lights. Second, make sure there are ZERO streetlights and ZERO car lights within 100 yards of where you're trying to see them. Both of these will ruin your night vision, and will wash the aurorae out of the sky. Third, leave your cell phone off. That little blue light will do the same thing as a streetlight, so just turn it off or cover it with a deep red filter. Fourth, it has to be a clear sky with no clouds. If it is cloudy, ambient streetlights up to 15 miles away will illuminate the clouds making them act like streetlights.

OK, so the BEST way to see aurorae: Find where it is actually dark. And I mean actual night. Not fake night, with streetlights, porch lights, cell phone lights and on and on. You must be able to see at least 300-600 stars, not the urban 50, and the Milky Way should be visible if it's above the horizon. In other words, no one in any urban or suburban area will see them. Only rural folk who turn off their outdoor lighting will see them. Experienced observers and stargazers who know what to look for have a hard time seeing them in poor conditions near cities, so use this as an excuse to get on outside to see the wonders of darkness!

Look below for more information.

Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aurora_Borealis_and_Australis_Poster.jpg

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific