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WILL WE SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS TONIGHT?????

STOP SHOUTING! I DON’T KNOW!!!

We might, that’s all we can say at the moment. It’s certainly looking promising as I’m writing this – all the spacey graphs and charts are going in the right direction, suggesting that it’s starting to hot up “up there” as material blasted off the Sun finally reaches the Earth and begins to have a pub car park fight with our planet’s magnetic field – but we won’t know until it gets dark. Then we will either see something, or nothing, it’s as simple as that.

If you’re wanting some basic advice about what to do tonight, where to go, how to see whatever happens, these FAQ might help.

WILL THE NORTHERN LIGHTS BE VISIBLE FROM WHERE I LIVE?? I don’t know. Where do you live? 🙂 The further north in the UK you are, the better placed you will be to see anything tonight, IF anything happens; there’s no guarantee it will yet. But the main problem, wherever you live, will be the weather. It looks like much of the UK will be under mist or cloud tonight, and if your part of the world is going to be you have to consider, seriously, jumping in the car and heading somewhere with a more favourable weather forecast. That’s up to you. It’s a risk either way.

WHAT TIME SHOULD I LOOK? I can’t give you a Start time, this is Nature, and Nature doesn’t offer us a tidy, helpful schedule. Just start looking as soon as it gets dark. It’s as simple as that. If we’re lucky, there will already be some brightness showing in the north, a hint of green perhaps, but we might need to wait a while before seeing anything. Be patient.

WHERE SHOULD I GO? WHERE’S A GOOD PLACE??? This is one of the most frequently asked questions. The best place for you – yes, YOU, reading this! – is simply somewhere where you can see the northern sky clearly, with no hills or buildings or tall trees in the way. But not just the northern sky, you want to be under a BIG sky tonight, with as much of it visible as possible. You also want – no, you NEED – to be somewhere dark, with no light pollution from streetlights, buildings, security lights etc. So… you want to go somewhere with a big sky, a clear view to the north, and no lights. You might see something from your garden in the middle of town, but will improve your chances ENORMOUSLY if you make the effort to get out of town to somewhere dark, trust me.

WHAT WILL I SEE???? WE DON’T KNOW!!!! CALM DOWN!! We might see nothing yet! But let’s be optimistic. Let’s suppose the northern lights will be visible from the UK tonight. What could you see? Well, at first you won’t see much,. because you have to get used to the darkness. When you reach your carefully selected observing site you’ll need between twenty and thirty minutes to “dark adapt”, and then you’ll be well placed to see whatever happens. And again, we don’t know what will happen. We might just see a vague greenish glow to the north, or an obvious-to-the-naked-eye green “rainbow” arch with hints of red or green rays or beams coming out of the top. If the display gets no further than that you should still see it with the naked eye. If the display is better then look out for more pronounced rays and beams, which will slowly change in height and may move left and right too. The green “rainbow” may break into smaller areas, resembling curtains, and these may or may not start to sway and move, like lace curtains being blown by a soft breeze. If the display gathers strength these curtains will start to “ripple” more quickly, and may even travel along the length of the rainbow, and the rays and beams may grow in height and brightness too. If we’re really lucky we will see a lot of colour, but the almost Full Moon might drown out the most vivid colours, leaving us with more muted hues. But we just don’t know. All you can do is head out, look up, and see what happens.

HOW DO I TAKE PHOTOS???? You will need a camera that can take time exposures of several seconds, and as you can’t hold a camera for that long without it shaking you will need to support it on something, ideally a tripod, but if you haven’t got one of those you can rest it on a beanbag or something like that on the top of your car or a fence or something.

If you’ve got a digital SLR, I have some tips especially for you…

1. Make sure your camera lenses are clean. You don’t want to click away like a mad Geiger Counter tonight only to find that every one of your gorgeous pictures is ruined by one or more dirty black specks, which will, of course be in exactly the worst place. Get your lenses out now, and give them a good clean.

2. Make sure your batteries are fully charged. Trust me, you really don’t want to be stood under a flaming red sky and look down and see your “battery low” light blinking. And yes, batterieS. Take at least one spare.

3. Make sure you have a memory card in your camera. I know… D’uh!… but it’s so easy to forget to put it back in after you’ve been downloading some photos or clearing some memory from it. Go look. Now. And again, take a spare.

4. Check your tripod is working. Imagine your horror if you get to your observing site tonight, start to set up, and your tripod has something wrong with it.

5. If you’re new to aurora-watching, and want to take photos but you’re not sure what length of exposures to use, go through the aurora pages on Spaceweather.com and note which settings/lenses resulted in the best pictures. Note them down, and use those as a starting point tonight. Then just have fun using your own settings. Experiment.

6. Have a “dry run” before heading out – assemble your camera and tripod, set them up as you plan to out in the field, and just check everything is working together. Tripod legs, tripod head, cable release, lenses, everything.

…and finally…

7. Make a promise to yourself that if things DO kick off tonight, you won’t spend the whole time taking photos. Now and then, step away from the camera, well away, so you’re not tempted to fiddle or take “just one more photo” and just LOOK AT THE SKY. Drink in the view, savour it, take in the colours, the movement and features of the aurora. Otherwise you’ll get home and realise, as you go through your photos, that you didn’t actually *watch* the aurora at all, you just photographed it.

…and that’s it, really. Seriously, there are no guarantees we’ll see ANYTHING tonight – but I can absolutely guarantee that if you DON’T look you will see absolutely nothing! So, absolute bottom line is this: when it starts to get dark, keep an eye on the northern sky. You never know, you might see something special..,

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