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We may...MAY...have another good shot at some good aurora activity coming up on April 16th. The weather for the week looks to be pretty bleak, but Friday's forecast is looking like partly cloudy skies with some potential clearing late. The problem is the lack of darkness. We will enter nautical twilight around 11:30 p.m. and come out of night at around 2:40 a.m. with the sun starting to move into sunrise. My experience this weekend was that activity was hard to see after about 3-4 a.m. due to the sun starting to rise and the activity being very faint. The Kp forecast is for a 4 on Friday, so we will see if that pans out and how it translates. Right now, I am looking to go out and set up around 1 a.m. but might go earlier depending on how data lines up. We shall certainly see!
A lot of people want to take photos of the northern lights but don’t know where to start and the camera manual can be a daunting place to learn. This post is just a generic starting point from which you can tweak your settings and be taking great photos out the gate. If your camera had a manual mode, then that’s where you should be setting it! ISO I prefer to shoot at an ISO between 200-600 to reduce noise in my photos. Many modern cameras have very good sensitivity and you can easily get away with a much higher ISO which will in turn reduce the shutter speed drastically. Aperture This is where you pay for quality pictures. The lower you can set your f-stop (aperture), the lower you can go with ISO and shutter speed. I don’t shoot anything higher that 2.8 and prefer to use my 1.4 to really let in the most light. Shutter Speed This one is the most flexible setting based on all of the other settings chosen as well as the brightness of the lights. I usually start out at 20” exposures and work my way from there. On a visually active display I can go down to 4” exposures. On a slow night I may want to extend it to 25” or 30”. Be mindful that as you approach 30” and beyond you will introduce star trails into your photos because at that long of an exposure your camera will begin to detect them moving across the sky. Ideal Settings On a typical display I will usually shoot with the following settings: ISO 400 Aperture 1.4 Shutter Speed 10” Helpful Tips Always remember to set your lens to manual focus and get it set up on focus before your big shoot! The night sky is far away and there’s not enough of a subject for your camera and lens to achieve auto focus in the field under the darkness of night. I always start by setting my lens to the infinite focus mark then moving it 1/8TH of an inch to the right and then narrow it down from there through a series of photos and zooming in on them between shots. Once you have it in focus it’s a good idea to tape the ring so it can’t be bumped or accidentally moved before and during your big photoshoot. Try to use a dedicated lens for shooting the Aurora. A wide angle or ultra wide angle lens with a length somewhere between 14 and 22 mm can capture a great amount of the sky. If you shoot canon, drop a reply and I can give you several specific examples to shop for! Any other questions please drop a reply!
Tonight and tomorrow (February 6-7, 2021), the Kp forecast is 4. This is based on the Earth-facing coronal hole which developed on the sun. They anticipate solar wind speeds to pick up and a stream of material to impact the near Earth environment. Right now, the speeds are average (in the 372 km/s range) and density is average as well (around 5 p/cm3). So, we'll keep an eye on those values throughout the day tomorrow to determine if tomorrow night looks like a good night to chase. The cloud forecast for tomorrow night looks very, very favorable; so, it looks like a good possibility of a long night ahead. I am still trying to determine exactly where we will set up tomorrow. Too many people hit the high-elevation and scenic spots when the aurora comes in. I don't need scenery, I just need lights! Right now, I am thinking we will probably roll our around midnight to 1:00am on the 7th. Keep your eyes peeled to the live chase page around that time to see if we are out. I will also be posting to Twitter as well. Feel free to join us virtually!
Well, you can't say we didn't try! We went out to Hatcher Pass last night, about an hour and 15 minutes north of our house, and sat there from 10:00pm until roughly 1:30am this morning. We were very hopeful we would see some activity. The space weather sites were talking about geomagnetic storming, forecasts were showing Kp index values forecast to hit 4 and 5, and Mother Nature gave us a rare, cloud-free night. It seemed like a perfect combination of variables for a great night of watching the northern lights...and, nothing! I am trained in terrestrial weather forecasting, so this space stuff is somewhat new to me. I did spend a couple of years analyzing the sun at one of our solar observatories, but we did not really do much with the solar wind, Kp, etc. Thus, I am learning about all of this stuff during this, my first winter in Alaska. I have gathered that solar wind speeds have to be elevated, above 400 km/s, with a density of at least 10 cm3, and a Bz in the negative. Last night, wind speeds were around 325 km/s, density was up just around 10 cm3 or slightly above, and the Bz was bouncing up and down. It wasn't great data, but the hope was there. Some started to see some faint lights after about 3:00am and I watched Facebook, in anticipation, until about 3:30am before I called it quits. It just wasn't meant to be. However, we did get some good out of it! I tested the latest iteration of my All-Sky camera. We successfully tested the off-network connection of the camera to my iPhone. This was a critical piece because the webserver for the camera can be utilized to view the latest live photo and make adjustments as necessary. Additionally, we tested that there is enough power from our vehicle's USB ports to power the camera while it sits on top of the roof. Thus, we were able to keep an eye on the sky from the warmth of the car and adjust exposure, gain, and other variables to see what worked best. In the end, it was a good trial run, even if Lady Aurora refused to put on a show! We may head out again tonight, but I am going to keep an eye on the cloud conditions. We have a pretty mature low-pressure system and ridge battling it out just over far western Alaska, so I am crossing my fingers that Mother Nature gives us one more shot at seeing some good activity from Lady Aurora this week. We'll see!