So, after all the excitement, expectation and hope, the northern lights didn’t put on a show for sky-watchers last night in the UK. In fact, they didn’t put on a show for anyone, anywhere. Reading all the disappointed Tweets on Twitter, posts on Facebook and comments on astronomy forums it’s clear that we went out in our thousands yesterday evening hoping to see something special, but it never came. When the much-hyped Coronal Mass Ejection finally hit Earth’s magnetosphere – both later and a lot weaker than expected – its polarity was wrong, tilted north instead of south, so our northern skies didn’t light up in shades and hues of vivid green, no searchlight beams stabbed up into the sky, no curtains of emerald and garnet flapped and slapped above the trees, obscuring the stars of the Big Dipper. Some observers reported the merest, most begrudging hint of green, but that’s wishful thinking I reckon. No. Nothing happened. The Sun, and the sky, laughed at us. All night. I can still hear their guffaws ringing in my ears now, as I write this.
Here in Kendal, members of the Eddington Astronomical Society – like AS members everywheere – had been looking forward to the POTENTIAL display of northern lights for a couple of days, and making plans. While some stayed in Kendal, closely monitoring the situation online, ready to dash to a dark sky as soon as word came in that something was happening. others headed out early, scattering in the hope of seeing something, from somewhere.
After looking at weather forecasts, which all agreed people to the north and east of Kendal would have the best chance of seeing something, Stella and I decided to mount our “Aurora Hunt” at Barnard Castle, the closest major town that promised a clear sky after dark and a possible chance of seeing any enhanced auroral activity. Being north of us, and east, it seemed well placed, and eventually we found a great observing location. Stella had the genius idea to go look at a campsite just out of town, figuring that, this time of the year, it should be quiet if not abandoned altogether, and when we got there that certainly seemed to be the case. Not another soul in sight, just a huge sky, a 360 degree horizon, and not too much light pollution considering its proximity to the busy towns and cities of the North East. Perfect!
The clouds covered the stars at 6pm, dead on time, so we headed back down into town to grab something to eat and wait out the clouds in comfort and warmth, knowing that we potentially had half a dozen hours of sitting freezing in a car ahead of us once we returned. And after a gorgeous Indian meal we went back up to the campsite, and prepared for whatever the universe decided to throw at us.
By 9pm it was cold, brutally cold, and an icy wind was howling over the exposed campsite, making it feel even colder. But what a sky..! The stars were like jewels, in all directions, and even with a brilliant, lantern-bright Moon blazing above the southern horizon the stars of Orion, Gemini and Ursa Major stood out like diamonds…
To Orion’s upper left, next to Castor and Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, Jupiter was a tiny magnesium flare, wonderfully bright…
…but the northern lights? Nothing. Not a hint of a whisper of a glimmer of a sign. I took test shot after test shot of the northern sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of green, suggesting that activity was picking up, but even after I read on Twitter that the CME had arrived the northern sky stayed stubbornly blank. And remained that way for the next four hours. NOTHING.
Sitting in the car each time I took a break from taking photos, sheltering from the wind and cold, I kept an eye on The Situation via Twitter and Facebook – both invaluable to astronomers now – and as I read negative reports from one aurora hunter after another I just knew that it wasn’t going to happen, and by 1pm, with the sky clouding over rapidly, we decided to call it a night and head home.
Of course, halfway back to Kendal the clouds parted, revealing a beautifully starry sky, and we stopped to take a few more pictures and look for auroral activity, but there was nothing. The pictures turned out well tho…
We made it home shortly after 2pm, and yes, we were disappointed not to have seen any auroral show, but it helped knowing NO-ONE had seen anything because there had been no auroral activity for *anyone* to see.
Now, writing this, many hours later, it’s clear that things just didn’t happen in the way they needed to last night, and there was no amazing auroral storm. Oh well, better luck next time! :-)
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