Tag Archives: Astrophotography

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!

The Galaxy Rises in Alaska

Growing up in Minnesota one of my favorite constellations was Orion. The appearance of his belt at earth’s horizon was a sure sign that autumn was approaching, and as I fell asleep each night I would watch him out my southern facing window. Many people, cultures, and seasons are tied to the position of the stars. In Alaska and as a night-photographer, I have grown to appreciate the rise of the Milky Way Galaxy to the north as spring approaches. Although at least a part of the Milky Way is visible through the winter, its growing prominence and brightness in February and March really documents the changing season. The Milky Way rises through the summer, but by the time we are able to see into the center of the Galaxy the sun will never set! Of course, the sun blots out any opportunity to see the center of the Milky Way from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.
Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.

I have been researching and “perfecting” techniques (lots of room for growth and creativity!) to stitch together large panoramas. The images here were created from stitched 25 – 32 images. The results are certainly  interesting and beautiful! My goal when creating these images is to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. On moonless nights like March 2nd in Fairbanks, Alaska the Milky Way shows up as a bright band in the sky. With some luck, the aurora accents its celestial beauty. As part of the Panoramic technique the resolution of the image grows to extreme proportions. These panoramas here are approximately 21,480 x 10,850 pixels! That’s nearly 233 megapixel resolution! The power of the technique the possibility of wall-sized panoramic prints. Hint, hint – I would love to see one of these printed to 50″ or bigger! If you are are interested, you should contact me!

A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.

From a bit purer side of photography, I was also able to capture the galaxy and aurora in single images. However, there is an interesting distinction in them over many of my other aurora shots – they are no longer “real”. I am a stickler for not over-processing aurora shots to  give the viewer the truest colors and most accurate representation as possible. However, to emphasize the galaxy it necessary to compromise on the color of the aurora. The aurora in these single shots and the panoramas is more vibrant than it was to the naked on this night.  Because of the color changes these are truly “works of art”, not just documentation of the aurora.  Its not a bad thing, but I feel should be made clear, as there is a growing opinion that aurora photography does not represent how it truly looks. In this particular case, that is true.

A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
Star Trails
A long star trails shows off the multitude of stars on a moonless night in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Starry Stitches

On the evening of December 8th this year, a wonderful series of phenomenon occurred. The sun went down, the aurora remained muted, brilliant stars of the Milky Way dappled the darkness, and a new moon sealed the deal for a night of very dark-skies.  I left the orange glow of Fairbanks behind and set off on a quest into the inky darkness of interior Alaska to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.

When photographing the galaxy you are capturing the “galactic plane” which is the stars which spin out from the “galactic center“. Our sun and solar system reside on the edge of the galaxy, and give us the opportunity to look into it. However, depending on the season and the photographer’s location on the planet, the true center of the galaxy may not be available. In Fairbanks the galactic center would be visible in the summer when it is always light. During the winter the galactic plane of the Milky Way is visible,  but we do not get an opportunity to see the center because we are blocked from it by the planet.

MilkyWay
This image does a nice job of demonstrating our position in the disk of the milky way, and translating that disk to the “galactic plane”. Brilliant Milky Way images capture the nuclear bulge a the center of the Milky Way. The nuclear bulge is not visible from Fairbanks in the December. Image Credit : UCSD.edu

Fairbanks has not felt wind for over two months and snow  which would ordinary not persist with wind clung to the spruces encasing them . I angled my camera at the bases of those trees and slowly moved at up into the sky after each exposure with the goal of creating panoramic ‘stitches’ of the Milky Way. The method compounds the star density of the galaxy, and brings out distant features like a nebula seen in the upper left of several of the images. I hope you take to opportunity to view dark skies when you can!

A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way.
A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way and a nebula cluster in the upper left.
Milky Way Stitch
I was able to achieve the most definition of the Milky Way in this particular shot and misty veils of aurora float through for effect.
Milky Way Panorama
A tall vertical stitch of the Milky Way over a winter paradise.
Nebula cluster
The nebula cluster in this shot is pointed out by a snow covered spruce that arches into the picture from the left.
Milky Way and Nebula Cluster.
The Milky Way springs out of this crotch formed by these snow-covered spruces.
Milky Way Stitch
A distant planet, perhaps Venus, is particularly bright in this image.
Hoar Frost
The hoar-frost covered trees are a testament to the lack of wind in the region.

Back in a Winter Wonderland

It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.

I want to give you an update on the calendars too. Thanks SO MUCH to those who have purchased one. The response and feedback to them has been tremendous. I am now on my second and last printing. If you have been considering ordering one, now is the time! Visit: http://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/index.php/product/2016-alaskan-calendar/

Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the  spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.

Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.

Refracted Highlight
The sun highlights the top of a snow-pillow smothering an arched black spruce.
DSC_3248
The dynamic light of the landscape is what makes it so beautiful. Shadows of the low sun contrast heavily against lighted spires.
Black and White Winter Wonderland
I really like how the black and white contrast of needles, snow, sky lend themselves to back-and-white photography.
Winter Sun Burst
The sun erupts through a gap in the trees, but has no heat this time of year.
Arched Spruces
The large snow-load has bent many of the black spruces over. They will rebound in the spring once their burden has been lifted.
Snow Covered Aurora
At night, the aurora lit up the landscape where I watched the the sun play across the tree tops hours earlier.
Low Aurora
A combination of short and tall black spruces creates a beautiful effect in this winter wonderland.
Spinning Stars in a Winter Wonderland
This starspin shot was set up for 2 hours. Focusing on the north star, it is amazing to see how much they shift over that time!

Chasing the Minnesota Aurora

During my trip home to Minnesota I have taken what I have learned about aurora watching in Alaska, and transferred it to conditions in the midwest. In doing so, I traded watching the aurora over snow drifts to squinting my eyes over bean fields with moderate success! A big push of energy from the sun has elevated geomagnetic energy to KP 6 or a G2-“Geomagnetic storm level 2”, which boosts the aurora to Minnesota, and even beyond. The two nights I chased the aurora brought success in both capturing the aurora in central Minnesota, and for playing with some new techniques which I will be honing in the upcoming year and are featured below. I would love to hear your feedback!

This timelapse below is fairly short and does not have a brilliant aurora, but does give a great idea of where to look for the aurora in Central Minnesota. During this G2 storm. In Alaska the aurora during a G2 storm would be far overhead and taking up the whole sky. In Minnesota it rose slightly above the horizon. Viewing would have been better if the smoke haze and moonlight could have been removed.

Moon through the clouds
The first night that I chased the aurora, a strong wing was rapidly pushing the clouds past this moon, which was fortunately setting. I really like the wind in the trees of this particular shot, as well as the long shadow cast by the moon.
Starlapse and Aurora
This star spin shot captures a 1.5 hours timelapse of star movement in the sky. Fortunately I captured the faint glow of aurora on low on the horizon, and directly below the pivotal star – the North Star.

One of the techniques I am very interested in growing is the ability to capture full panoramas of the milky way. The progression of images below shows a little bit on how that works. I learned a lot in this first attempt. A few key findings : 1) find the darkest skies possible! The light pollution shows here. 2) need to have more overlap in the shots 3 ) I tried to capture the whole galaxy in one sweep of the camera. I now know I can stitch multiple rows of shots to capture a larger area 4) keep the ISO of the camera low-ish to reduce noise. For those reading this with experience in capturing the Milky Way, please contact me, it would be great to pick your brain!

Midwest Milky Way
This image does a nice job of capturing a single image of the Milky Way. However, I would like to find darker skies. By taking multiple shots with the camera on the same plane, I can stick them together into the results below.
Milky Way Stretch
Here is one of the things I am struggling with in capturing a full panorama of the Milky Way. This image has a gorgeous amount of contrast, however, after stitching, I did not have enough horizon to create an image that can be cropped well. I would love to get feedback on the best way to straighten and correct these images.
Milky Way Panorama
This image is the best example I have of stitching the Milky Way, but is far from the entire arch. I do really like the bit of aurora that shows up here. Hopefully I can apply what I learned in my next attempt!
Aurora KP 6 Central Minnesota
This image of the aurora was taken in Rice, Minnesota during a G2 auroral storm. If it weren’t for the moon and the haze it would have been a much nicer show!

I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!

 

Click here to View my professional aurora borealis gallery on Fine Art America

Aurora Borealis Panoramas

Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.

I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!

Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity - pretty good! The 'break' you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity – pretty good! The ‘break’ you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in photoshop, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in Photoshop 6, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.

Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!

There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!

Celestial Sights : Comet Lovejoy in Alaska

Comet Lovejoy has been visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but peaked in magnitude on January 15th and is now headed away from Earth. Viewers can still see it with binoculars for probably only a while longer, so get out there soon. It will not be visible for another 8,000 years! Last night I went comet chasing, which I think is the first time since Hale-Bopp! I was just 9 years old at the time, but I remember sitting on the back deck at the house and observing the skies. You may have heard of comets in the news lately. During November 2014, the Rosetta Comet landing (Philae Lander) by the European Space Agency made history as the first time humans have landed a craft on a comet. Some incredible science will hopefully be done once the lander’s solar panels start gathering light again. However, one of the incredible things to come from the observation of the comet was the “sound” that a comet makes. “ESA’s Rosetta probe detected cyclical changes in the comet’s magnetic field environment. To make the comet’s magnetic ‘song’ audible to people, researchers sped up the data 10,000 times its actual rate.” (www.space.com). It has been likened to Predator (the movie), and the similarity is uncanny! The timelapse below includes the eerie and amazing ‘song’!


Comet Lovejoy does not have a huge tail, however is very, very distinctly green. I was told it was green, but the forest/lime green color was much more distinct that I was expecting! Through the night I shot the Lovejoy comet in a variety of methods, I learned a lot! The three images here are meant to give you an idea of where to find Lovejoy current, as well as the look of different focal lengths. At ~300 mm the maximum length of exposure without star trails is about 1.5 seconds.

If you want to get out to see Lovejoy in the next couple of nights let me know. It is worth it!

This image of Lovejoy will give you a good idea of where to look in the skies. The cluster of stars you see is the constellation the '7 Sisters'. On 01/17/2015 the comet was located below, and to the right of that constellation. This image was taken at 17mm, f/2.8, 25sec, ISO 1600
This image of Lovejoy will give you a good idea of where to look in the skies. The cluster of stars you see is the constellation the ‘7 Sisters’. On 01/17/2015 the comet was located below, and to the right of that constellation. This image was taken at 17mm, f/2.8, 25sec, ISO 1600
This images of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 100mm. f/4.0, ISO 3200, 3.2 seconds.
This images of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 100mm. f/4.0, ISO 3200, 3.2 seconds.
This image of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 286 mm. It starts to give you a pretty good idea of the green halo/fuzz which surrounds the comet. f/5.6, ISO 2500, 3.2 sec
This image of Comet Lovejoy was taken at 286 mm. It starts to give you a pretty good idea of the green halo/fuzz which surrounds the comet. f/5.6, ISO 2500, 3.2 sec
This abstract shot of the Comet Lovejoy was assembled in Star Trails. Because of the noise associated with these shots I had to edit it heavily. However, I love the neon green path that it it plows across the sky!
This abstract shot of the Comet Lovejoy was assembled in Star Trails from ~200 shots. Because of the noise associated with these shots I had to edit it heavily. However, I love the neon green path that it it plows across the sky!

2014 in Review : A Good Year!

It’s incredible that one 36th of the year is already gone as I type this. Weren’t we just clinking champagne glasses as the ball dropped in New York just last night? As 2015 begins, I wanted to take the time to thank all who support this blog and my writing. I would not just write to myself; your comments and input are much appreciated!

I am incredibly thankful for my time here in Alaska. My travels have taken me to hundreds of miles south to enjoy the coastal ranges in Anchorage and Seward. In the opposite direction, I have beaten the punishing gravel of the haul road to cross the Brooks Range onto the Northslope three times. Within the Alaskan wilderness I have hunted big game, fished its rivers, and enjoyed bears, fox, and wolves, along with a plethora of bird species. During the dark skies of winter I have been graced by the dancing Northern Lights and cloaked in inky darkness. I have found there is always something to do in Alaska, and I feel that in the last 365 days I have had the adventures worthy of two year. It has indeed been a good year!

Below is a small gallery of the hundreds of photos that have been taken in Alaska during 2014 and featured in the blog. I have opted out of any captions, but if you would like to know more about an image, leave a comment. Thanks again everyone, and here’s to 2015!

January


Burbot Fishing

P1260008

February


P2131151

P2210770

P2120449

March


P3030128

P3090080

April


P1011625

P4300018

May


P5010171

June


P6220008

P6270123

P6280121

July


DSC00451

August


P8070762

P8081088

September


P9120879

P9110016

P9062154

Igloo Campground Fall Color Pan 2

October


PA040042

November


PB151929

PB101310

PB140005

PB080288

December


PC011626

PC150102

Aurora Photographic Experiment

I want to share a few images with you from the aurora a few nights ago. I spent the night shooting some great aurora, and in the downtimes of the show played around with a couple of fun, long-exposure techniques. So, as a result some of these aren’t my ‘normal’ aurora shot with a static tripod for a period of time.

First, in these two images I performed what I am calling a “focal pull”. During the exposure which lasted 15 seconds I moved the focal length from 16mm to 11mm. I chose objects to be featured at the center of the image, however, everything else becomes very blurry, but the blurs still hold the shape of the original object. It feels like we are entering lightspeed! What I like about the effect is how the star lines draw your eye to the center of the image. It certainly is an abstract technique!

Focal Pull 1 - In this image I centered the picture on this spruce tree top and then over the course of the exposure (15 seconds) drew the focal length back from 16mm to 11mm. This increases the field of view, but leaves the centered object fairly static. I think I see a pine tree man.
Focal Pull 1 – In this image I centered the picture on this spruce tree top and then over the course of the exposure (15 seconds) drew the focal length back from 16mm to 11mm. This increases the field of view, but leaves the centered object fairly static. I think I see a pine tree man.
Focal Length Pull 2 - For this image I focused on the stump before pulling the focal length from 16mm to 11mm through the shot. There was much more 'black' in this image to start with, creating strong shading in the image.
Focal  Pull 2 – For this image I focused on the stump before pulling the focal length from 16mm to 11mm through the shot. There was much more ‘black’ in this image to start with, creating strong shading in the image.

In these next two images I did a pan across the landscape during the long exposure. This, in effect, exposed the standing trees in multiple locations on the camera’s sensor and created the ghost-like trees shown. What I really like about the effect is this how it makes you perceive the dark. It’s eerie and full of shadows – these images seem to capture that for me. This stand of spruce was recently thinned – perhaps these are the ghosts of trees that once were.

In this panning shot of the landscape at night I took advantage of the long exposure by slowing panning across the landscape. This spruce stand has been thinned recently - maybe these are the ghosts of trees that were.
In this panning shot of the landscape at night I took advantage of the long exposure by slowing panning across the landscape. This spruce stand has been thinned recently – maybe these are the ghosts of trees that were.
Ghost-like trees stand sentinel in this long exposure pan of an aurora lit landscape.
Ghost-like trees stand sentinel in this long exposure pan of an aurora lit landscape.

Both of these artful experiments, and are first attempts at techniques I would like to continue to develop. So, now that I have explained and showed my experiment I would love to know what you think! What do you find appealing about these images? What don’t you like? What else could I try? One of the appealing aspects of these techniques to me is that noone does them! Naturally, I would love to be a pioneer of it, and your feedback is helpful!

For the rest of the night I did not take any more time to mess around with my aurora photography. This was the first night of a high amount of incoming activity. NOAA had released a ‘geomagnetic storm warning‘ for December 19-22 based on incoming coronal mass ejections (CME) from the sun in the previous days. This night was the first that these particles were scheduled to produce a show. As night progressed, the aurora came in fits-and-spurts (I think due to a flipping magnetic field which controls aurora intensity). When it was ‘on’ it was really on! And I wanted to make sure I captured that. The night ended up with some great reds and an aurora ‘selflie’ on one of the sleds from Black Spruce Dog Sledding.

Aurora Red
A stunning double band of aurora with a good showing of red!
PC200101
The pink sky in this aurora was actually (I think) high intesnity aurora coming in and being picked up by the sensor – although the naked eye couldn’t see it. For periods in the night my images had a pink hue to them.
PC200155
The pink at the bottom of this aurora and the height are features of an intense, and rapidly moving aurora. Here it was dancing across the sky in a jaw-dropping show!
PC200178
The Aurora hangs of a sled at Black Spruce Dog Sledding, Murphy Dome, Alaska.
PC190046-2
The Milky Way and aurora collided early in the night before the aurora really intensified.

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PC200185
Aurora Selfie – This was a bit of an experiment in itself! I was able to use a headlamp to get fairly even, and bright enough lighting. Certainly a memorable shot!

Leonid Meteors, Aurora Borealis, Angel Rocks, Alaska!

We shut the truck off and stepped out into a cool night and a light breeze which shocked the face. My friend Ross and I were after auroras, and we planned to summit Angel Rocks in the Chena Recreation Area to spend the night and watch it. The sun was low in the sky as we started up the 1.6 miles to the summit of Angel Rocks. By the time we had reached the top of the ~1000 foot climb, the breeze funneling up the canyon below had stopped, and the sun melted into the horizon leaving a blue and gold light which lingered for hours. With short days in Fairbanks, it was hard to forget it was only about 5:30! There was a lot of night to go.

I was delighted to find a cave at the top of Angel Rocks. It was two ended and had large crevasses in the ceiling to view the stars. In the middle I could stand all the way up, and the larger south facing entrance was almost 8 feet tall. I’m just speculating, but I think this cave was formed as a magma bubble. The geology of the summit was far different than any geology I had seen in the Fairbanks region. In contrast to the normal scree slopes and shale of the region, the exposed rocks were granite and had forms which suggested bubbling magma. The rock outcrop where we stood was very unique!

The cave at the top of angel rocks was amazing! The double entrance was passable and you could easily stand up inside. Here is a picture from out of the cave looking south. You can just see the tail of the milky way.
The cave at the top of angel rocks was amazing! The double entrance was passable and you could easily stand up inside. Here is a picture from out of the cave looking south. You can just see the tail of the milky way.

The Leonids

In a collision of natural phenomenons, the Leonid meteor shower lined up with an incredible aurora display. Each year the Leonid meteor shower peaks around the 17th or 18th of November. Named after Leo, the constellation that they seem to radiate from. The Leonids Meteor Shower is actually small pieces of the comet Tempel-Tuttle which burn up as they enter our atmosphere.  Incredibly, the size of the majority of particles range from grains of sand to pea-size.The largest meteors are often only marble sized pieces of comet. That’s a lot of light from a particle the size of your favorite shooter!! These particles burn up because the air in front of them is compressed and heated which scorches the meteor. That’s way different than I was ever taught (i.e. they burn up because of friction with the air). How fast do they have to be moving to build up that air pressure? The particles can enter the upper atmosphere at 160,000 mph! The Leonids were 24 hours from peak activity, and throughout the night they dazzled us with frequent and long tails.

A leonid meteor streaks through the Milky Way - how cool is that?!
A Leonid meteor streaks through the Milky Way – how cool is that?!

The Aurora

As the sun set the aurora immediately started up. In fact, with an ‘official’ start time of 5:30 PM it was the earliest I have ever seen the aurora appear! It certainly seemed to be a good omen for the night to come.

The aurora had already 'booted up' as the sun set. That's an incredible show of energy!!
The aurora had already ‘booted up’ as the sun set. That’s an incredible show of energy!!

Over the course of the night we enjoyed three bursts of incredible aurora. From 5:30 – 7:00 PM, 9:30 – 11:30 PM and from 5:30 – 6:30 AM. Although sleeping in the cave would have been VERY awesome, the night was so warm that I was content to roll out my sleeping bag under the stars and slumber around midnight. I awoke at 5:30 AM not minutes before an incredible corona dominated the overhead skies (captured in timelapse!). I think my aurora sense was tingling and telling me to wake up!

This capture of the aurora over Angel Rocks, Alaska pretty much says it all. The lone spruce, rock outcrop and rich aurora all make for an amazing shot!
This capture of the aurora over Angel Rocks, Alaska pretty much says it all. The lone spruce, rock outcrop and rich aurora all make for an amazing shot!

For the second night in a row the aurora put on an unforgettable show. I think the aurora are like fingerprints. They may look alike, but none are ever the same! For its immense status in the sky, I had never seen aurora that stayed as intense as this one. At times you could have read a book by it, and all through the night the sky was filled with incredible beauty and auroral ballerinas. In Minnesotan, it was “oofda good!”.