The Northern Lights

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The northern lights looking over the Beauly firth towards the Black Isle, Inverness-shire

After reports of a KP6 geomagnetic storm predicted to strike Scotland over the weekend, and clear skies on Sunday evening, I headed out after sunset to try and catch the northern lights.  This was a very early aurora excursion as nights have only just got dark enough for decent views of the night sky, let alone tracking down the faint and elusive northern lights.

My initial outing took my into the hills above Bunchrew where I bagged some lovely views of the summer Milky Way overhead.  Turning my attention north I noticed a faint arc of light on the horizon,  and sure enough some test shots picked up a vibrant band of purple and green auroral light.  However little structure was evident until I moved to lower elevations, reaching the Bunchrew shoreline just after 10.30pm.

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The Milky Way near Cygnus, framed between trees above Bunchrew.

From this new vantage, in the dark looking over the Beauly Firth,  the northern lights stood out much more clearly as distant columns of white light, slowly morphing and scintillating above the horizon.  Some of the images (attached) show nice structure and the suggestion of wave like movement.

As our nights get darker many more opportunities to view the aurora will present themselves.  The best strategy is to simply get out there as often as you can when it’s clear, and try and escape the boundaries of light polluted towns and cities.  Aurora forecasts should only be used as a guide as they’re seldom reliable.  Remember to look north and where possible find some nice low horizons in this direction.

Good luck and clear skies.

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The aurora is caused by the solar wind slamming into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles, ionising chemical elements which produce light at very specific quantised frequencies.

 

 

Planetary Nebula

The term planetary nebula is highly erroneous, as these emission nebula have nothing whatsoever to do with planets.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the beautiful ring nebula in Lyra, not far from the brilliant star Vega, although many other planetary nebula are scattered around our night skies, and can be observed comfortably in larger telescopes.

The following video by ESA is a fantastic 3D model of the Ring nebula. In essence the ring nebula is the remnants of a dying Sun like star beyond its red giant phase. As the star enters its final stages its outer layers are shed in great expanding waves, and the residual hot white dwarf star at the centre ionises these gases into beautiful coloured shells.

This ionisation process is very similar to the mechanism that produces Earth based aurora. Electrons are recaptured within the host atoms (often hydrogen, helium, oxygen and nitrogen) and the drop to lower energy levels releases light of a specific frequency, governed by the simple equation we all learn in physics, E = hf.