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!”.

6 thoughts on “Leonid Meteors, Aurora Borealis, Angel Rocks, Alaska!”

  1. There have been times, actually many times, when I’ve chuckled and shook my head as you lusted after the next best purchase, whether it was for fishing, hunting or playing video games….Now I smile and shake my head because you continue to lust after the next best purchase in camera gear, use your God-given talents to capture such beautiful images and you appreciate them for what these experiences are. In Mommasotan, “that’s my boy!”

  2. Ian, you surely have a gift for capturing and framing images of God’s creation. The meteor streaking through the Milky Way and the incandescent green of the aurora contrasting the deep blue of the sky are most pleasing to both eyes and soul.

  3. Hi Ian,
    hope you read this. I have seen you use a MFT camera. I have a new M10 and in January I travel to Norway to see the northern Lights. I want to buy a lens for this trip but I don’t know what is a good lens for this trip. What lenses did you use?
    Best wishes Jessica

    1. Hello Jessica,

      Thanks for checking and your question! I shoot the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 (For Nikon) for the aurora. It’s an excellent lens. I have improved the capability of the lens by strapping it to the camera with a Metabones MFT to Nikon speedbooster. That gets me down to a cool f/2.0 and increases the field of view by 30% – an aurora shooter’s dream! You can also just strap the lens to the body with a traditional adapter. For instance, I used the MFT to Nikon adapter provided by Fotodiox before I put in for the Metabones adapter. Note that the Tokina lens has a ‘clickless aperature’, so when buying an adapter make sure it has an aperture adjustment ring.

      If you want to stay in MFT lens type rather than adapting something just be sure to choose something wide and fast. I have found it difficult to get a quality image with MFT with anything slower than 2.8, so focus you searches on that.

      Let me know if you’d like any more insight, and let me know how that EM10 works for aurora shooting in Norway (yah lucky duck!) – I’d love to hear!

      My best,

      Ian

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