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Hunting the aurora… in Cumbria…

EAS Aurora Hunters 2

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know just how many times I have tried to see the northern lights from Cumbria, here in the north of England. It’s a pretty thankless task, for many reasons. Firstly, when it comes to the aurora, the “north of England” isn’t actually that far north. It’s almost the end of the world for politicians and media types down in London, they think we are permanently covered in snow and have to fight off sabre tooth tigers and mammoths, but in terms of being well placed for watching auroral activity we’re really not that far north at all, you need to go up to Scotland to have a chance of seeing anything with any regularity. Also, to be blunt, our weather is crap. The Lake District HAS lakes for a reason – it rains SO much here you would not believe it, and usually when it’s not raining at night it’s cloudy, so doing any kind of astronomy is “challenging” at best.

But that doesn’t stop us haring up to the north of our beautiful county if the KP index and the “space weather dials” suggest there’s even a hint of a whisper of a chance of seeing even the top of an auroral display peeking above our northern horizon. And off we go, with cameras and high hopes… only, usually, to have those hopes dashed by the weather or the aurora itself. What promised to be a Big Display ends up as little more than a water colour wash green glow on the horizon. And every time it happens we tell ourselves “Our time will come… our time will come…” Not really believing it, of course…

But sometimes, just sometimes, our time DOES come. And last week, on two nights in a row, we were able to see the northern lights from Cumbria.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday evening, and across the UK aurora-hunters and sky watchers are wondering what the night will bring. Earlier that morning, after doing nothing all night, a big auroral display had kicked off after our sunrise, delighting viewers in the US and leaving us banging our heads against ant available wall. As the day progressed we all kept checking the websites and blogs and Twitter feeds we rely on to give us warnings of possible aurora, hoping that when darkness fell we would see something, but it was very uncertain.

Then, at around quarter to eight in the evening, looking at my phone I saw a Facebook post from an aurora watcher in Finland, shouting to the world that he was seeing a BIG display in his sky… That pricked my ears up! REALLY??? Finland was dark ahead of us, so surely at least the upper part of a display as big as the one he was describing would be visible for us too? We get to our Shap observing site around half an hour later, but the sky was almost totally cloudy, with just a narrow, letterbox strip of clear sky to the north. Even though it wasn’t properly dark yet I decided to take a test shot, and aimed my camera at the clear sky…

1st 20-29 frameYES!!!!! AURORA, right there!!!

…and then it all went… nuts…

The sky cleared, and by some miracle it stayed clear ALL NIGHT, as the biggest and most impressive display of the northern lights seen from our part of the world for almost a decade painted the sky green, red and purple.

It started off slowly, with just – just! haha! – a huge green arc across the northern sky, looking like a lime green rainbow…

reflection

But slowly the arc started to sprout beams, and rays, which jabbed up into the sky like searchlights…

4th

IMG_3261

IMG_3258 20-44

Watching this from Shap we were more than happy with that. It was more than we had seen for a long time, But it turned out that was just the warm up act for the main show, like those cute little UFOs that fly over everyone at the end of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS before the Mothership arrived…because at about half past nine, the green arc vanished, as if switched off like a light bulb, and when it came back the northern sky blazed with cold, green fire…

IMG_3338 21-59 frameIMG_3341 22-02 frame

IMG_3343 22-03 frame

I took photo after photo after photo, laughing at the beauty of it all, as did Stella and someone who had come up on the off chance to see if he could see anything. By ten pm activity was dying down, the great green curtains had stopped rolling and flapping, but the northern sky was still glowing…

stella aurora frame

stella frame

bothIMG_3411 23-26 frame

beamcarol frame

By 01.30 on Thursday morning activity had died right down to a soft background glow, so we headed home, delighted with what we had seen. But activity continued throughout the day, so after dark on Thursday evening we headed up to Shap again.

THURSDAY

Word had obviously gone out about the possibility of seeing the northern lights the next night, night because every lay-by we passed was crammed with cars full of hopeful aurora watchers, but our site was thankfully quiet and deserted. This time no aurora greeted us upon our arrival, and the sky was a lot cloudier. In fact, it just didn’t “feel right” for an aurora, so I took some constellation photos to pass the time, hopeful that something might appear. Reports on Twitter and Facebook were suggesting a display was visible further north from us – a LOT further, like Orkney and the Hebrides – but we couldn’t see it. There was a trace, a suggestion of a green glow on photos taken facing north, but that was all –

Then, suddenly, it appeared… The Blob…!

IMG_3530 22-46

At just after quarter to eleven a vague patch of pale green appeared above the NW horizon, and brightened and kept brightening. No rays came from it, no beams, nothing, just a green glow that came and went. But we were happy with that, and Stella posed in front of it for a photo… look at it carefully, over to the right…

IMG_3546 23-04

Yes! Some rays! I couldn’t see them by eye, but they showed up on the photo on the back of the camera, so I tried a few more shots towards them…

blob and rays

IMG_3548 23-08Again, activity died down around half past midnight, so we decided to call it a night. Stella bedded down in the back oif the van, and I curled up on the front seat, setting my alarm for 04.30 in the hope of seeing a quartet of planets lined up in the pre-dawn sky. Did I see them? Well, that’s in the previous post…🙂

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