Thursday, April 14, 2011

Auroras and Iridium Flares

Okay, sunset and the green flash were cool, but can you guess what is way cooler?  The auroras!  I saw my first Aurora Australis (aka Southern Lights) a few days ago!  On my way back to ARO from lunch at the Elevated Station, I passed Johan.  He alerted me to keep my eyes to the sky – he had seen faint auroras on his walk to the station.  Auroras!?!?!  This early?  Amazing!  It took me FOREVER to walk my way back to ARO – just imagine me walking in the dark, looking up at the sky, stumbling over sastrugi and snow drifts, nearly running into our flag line, and trying not to fog my goggles.  It must have been hilarious.  My awkward walk was fruitful – I saw my first auroras!  It took me a few moments to figure out that what I was seeing was an aurora and not a cloud.  With it being still fairly light outside, the green auroras are very faint and don’t appear very green.  I knew I was seeing the aurora because it was oriented in the opposite direction of the rest of the clouds.  Also, it was moving.  Also, its brightness changed over seconds.  Definitely auroras. 

I was so excited to see a faint green ribbon of atomic oxygen giving off visible light hundreds of kilometers above my head that I screamed.  Literally screamed.  At this point I was extremely excited, but also a little worried that someone had heard my excited squeal and misinterpreted it for a scream of fear, pain, or general distress.  If I heard someone screaming outside, I would probably be forced to activate the ERT team, or our Emergency Response Team (the ‘T’ is redundant when you’re speaking in acronyms, I know).  So worried that all my peers would come running outside to rescue a fellow Polie in distress, I quieted down my excitement and joy associated with the first real auroras of the season.  Throughout my walk to ARO, the auroras danced overhead.  It was pretty amazing. 

Last night I saw a phenomenon called an ‘Iridium Flare’.  There is a comprehensive constellation of Iridium satellites overhead that provide a 24/7 voice and very limited data connection to the real world.  It’s basically our satellite phone connection.  We had Iridium phones on RAINIER.  They never seemed to work very well, given the mountainous areas we usually surveyed.  The little portable phones were more of a hassle than a help quite often.  Regardless, there are a lot of Iridium satellites up there.  As the satellites are orbiting the Earth and are overhead, the sun sometimes hits them at the correct angle, reflecting sunlight that is visible to a viewer on the surface.  These reflections are bright!  The Iridium Flares are very predictable, as we know the orbits of these satellites very well.  When they are visible, like they were last night, you can see an Iridium Flare every 9 minutes and 10 seconds.  What you actually see is a ‘star’ that’s moving at a decent clip through the sky.  As it reflects more sunlight toward the surface, the ‘star’ gets brighter and brighter, until it’s a ‘flare’.  It stays very bright for a second or two, and then fades back out.  It’s very cool.  Not as cool as the auroras, but I like them because they are so predictable and easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.  I have to get a shot of this phenomenon as well at some point. 

Yesterday we also had a momentous event at ARO – we made it officially winter.  “How can NOAA employees influence and control the seasons?”, one may ask.  Simple!  We brought in the last of the summer solar instruments from the roof yesterday.  Once they are safely inside, basking in the warmth of the building and settling in for a 6-month hibernation, we hit the ‘Winter’ button on our data acquisition system, ceasing the recording of non-existent data and causing the winter to officially begin.  It was so exciting – I had heard about this button MONTHS ago and was super stoked to push it.  It was even more of an event than imagined.  Although I was feeling sick yesterday, this brightened my day just a bit.

Stay tuned for pictures of the auroras and iridium flares – once I figure out how to work my camera in the dark and cold with a tripod without freezing my fingers off, I will be sure to post a few photos!


Meg said...

I want a picture of the "winter" button!

Stephanie said...

Ditto's Meg's excitement for a photo of the "winter" button - you're so powerful! :) Awesome update, Christy. Hope my email made it through to you in some form. Thinking of you and loving the glimpses into your adventure of a lifetime! Happy Winter!

Julie said...

Awesome! Someone has probably already told you, but set your ISO to 400, Shutter speed to 10-13", and I think a low aperture (my cheapo camera doesn't have that option). Put it on a 2 second timer so you don't make the image blurry. Snap! ;)