Ah, spring — when thoughts turn to . . . sunspots and auroras!
Last Thursday, Texas amateur and longtime sunwatcher Tom Fleming alerted me to a sudden spike in the number of sunspots. "The joint is jumping," he enthused. "We have three new groups today in addition the the two that rounded the limb a couple of days ago."
Sure enough, a quick check of "The Sun Now" shows that our star is peppered with a half dozen clusters of sunspots, some easily the size of Earth. We've been patiently waiting for such a breakout, and it's great to finally have a Sun worth observing. So go ahead, have a look — but please do so safely!
This uptick in activity means that the Sun is beginning its climb toward maximum, which NASA solar physicist David Hathaway now predicts should occur in mid-2013. Odds are that solar cycle 24 will be modest and not particularly threatening. But it should still provide plenty of nice auroral displays for your nighttime viewing pleasure — provided that you live at a high-enough latitude to be relatively near one of Earth's magnetic poles.
For my money, nothing makes space "real" like a good showing of the northern lights. I look up and imagine Earth's magnetosphere engorged with solar-wind electrons that abruptly and ferociously attack Earth's upper atmosphere. Unseen gas molecules some 50 miles (80 km) up defend us by absorbing the high-energy onslaught and then, moments later, reradiating it harmlessly as light: greens, pinks, or murky reds signaling oxygen atoms, and more intense reds and blues from nitrogen atoms, our second line of defense.
Sadly, even from my mostly dark suburban-Boston sky, at latitude 43°, I rarely see the northern lights. So I was amused in recent months when, apparently desperate for science-news-you-can-use stories, the news media jumped all over aurora alerts that proved to be mediocre even for those in polar climes.
Trust me, if there's a really good show of the northern lights in the offing, we'll let you know about it.
In the meantime, let me whet your appetite with an absolutely amazing compilation of aurora footage shot by Ole Salomonsen. A financial specialist by day, this 38-year-old Norwegian is a maniacal aurora-chaser at night. Over six months, he shot 50,000 frames with his trusty Canon EOS 5D camera, then combined them into a stunning 4½-minute video of dancing displays over mountains, forests, water, and his native Tromsø. Salomonsen even captured an auroral assault known as a coronal display that played out directly overhead with the Big Dipper as backdrop.
Now, I know there's lots of good aurora photography out there, but in my humble opinion Salomonsen's work is something special. It rates a "must watch" billing.
"A goal for me has been to try to preserve the real-time speed of the northern lights, or come as close as possible," Salomonsen explains, "and to present it the way I experienced it, instead of the northern lights just flashing over the sky in the blink of an eye."
When you view the video, make sure you click the "HD" setting and turn up the volume to hear the soundtrack, "Aurora in the Sky," composed by Per Wollen. Pay close attention to the slow pans and zooms of the foreground — wonderful effects that really enhance the experience.
I can't wait to see Salomonsen's work in true high-def or