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Valentine’s Day 2016 Aurora – Live Updates

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Northern Lights Now – There’s an active geomagnetic storm watch for Valentine’s day 2016. NLN will be posting live leading up to the storm and as it happens here, please come back often!

Update: 02:15UTC Feb 16 (9:15pm EST)

Amazing – More than 24 hours after the predicted arrival of the Feb 11 CME, space weather activity has increased. Bz just dived to -6, while Bt has been above 20 and wind speed is increasing. We may get KP=5 yet! KP is currently t 4.33, and it could easily climb over the next hour.

This tweet was just posted by Eva Olsen – @MissEvaOlsen

The interesting question presented by this data: Is this the arrival of the predicted CME, or is this a disturbance traveling along a slightly elevated wind stream?

Update: 17:30UTC Feb 15 (12:30pm EST)

We’re calling it. This storm is a miss. There is no indication that is approaching.

Space weather data shows no tell-tale indication of a solar storm passage
Space weather data shows no tell-tale indication of a solar storm passage

In the image above, if you expand it and look closely, you could almost make a compelling argument that the CME arrived between 5 and 7am GMT (during our last update) as the density is consistently above 10 p/cm3.

Time to look forward to the next potential solar storm. Luckily for aurora hunters, the wait won’t be long. On Wednesday the high speed stream from the northern extension of a southern pole coronal hole should arrive at Earth and bring with it a chance for activity. Stay tuned for a post about that.

High speed winds from coronal hole may impact Earth on 2/17
High speed winds from coronal hole may impact Earth on 2/17

Update: 12:30UTC Feb 15 (7:30am EST)

The CME arrival is now officialy late. It is either moving very slowly or it missed Earth. SWPC has updated their forecast and is now calling for the arrival about 6 hours from now, here’s the updated NLN 3-day AuroraCast showing the updated forecast from SWPC:

Updated 3-day auroraCast from NLN and SWPC shows today's storm arriving at 1:00pm EST
Updated 3-day auroraCast from NLN and SWPC shows today’s storm arriving at 1:00pm EST

This means we’re still in wait-and-see mode. Though every hour that passes without a sure sign of the arrival means it’s more likely this was a dud.

Note in the image above a new period of G1 storming is predicted on day three. This is due to the coronal hole that was pointed towards Earth yesterday. There is a new watch posted for this period. NLN will make a new post about that watch soon.

Update: 06:00UTC Feb 15 (1:00am EST)

Over the last half hour there has been a marked increase in proton density. Readings have sustained above 10 p/cm3 with occasional spikes above 18. Earlier these reading were between 5 and 8 with occasional brief spikes. This is an indication that the CME is arriving. In addition to the proton density, Bt measurements have shown a couple abrupt changes in the last hour. Both of these indications say that the CME shock could arrive in the next hour or two, with the impact at Earth about an hour later. Here’s the current data from spaceweatherlive.com (where you monitor ACE satellite data in near real-time):

Live data from ACE shows increases in proton density and fluctuating Bt
Live data from ACE shows increases in proton density and fluctuating Bt

Over the next two hours, watch for more sudden jumps in Bt, proton density to increase to 20 with spikes above 30, and the solar wind speed to pick up. As the CME shock arrives, all measures should show significant changes. Once that happens, watch the Bz. If the Bz shifts into negative territory, it means the CME is oriented correctly to produce aurora on Earth. Once the Bz shifts south, about an hour later the KP will rise and aurora hunters will be rewarded for the wait tonight.

Since this storm is delayed from the predicted schedule, Europeans probably won’t get to see northern lights tonight. But people in New Zealand may get a display.

It’s time for the NLN crew to head to bed. Our next post will be in the morning.

Update: 02:30UTC Feb 15 (9:30pm EST)

Hang tight! It’s not time to give up yet. It will be at least another hour before any aurora starts, and probably more – the CME has not arrived yet. While we’re waiting, here’s some aurora from Iceland in January.

Update: 23:00UTC Feb 14 (6:00pm EST)

The period when KP=5+ is predicted has begun. However, NLN, space weather scientists and space weather enthusiasts are still in wait and see mode. The absence of a clear indication in EPAM of the approaching CME indicates either that the CME is missing Earth, or it is moving slower than expected. There have continued to be hints of activity in the data at ACE – recently spikes in the the proton density graphs indicate there are small waves of protons hitting the satellite. Similar to the data in the 20:00 update, these could be indicators that the front of the CME is being pushed by the high speed solar wind from the coronal hole. If that’s true, the CME may have sheared while traveling through space.

Spikes in Proton Density over the last two hours - may indicate the leading edges of the CME have been sheared and are arrviing
Spikes in Proton Density over the last two hours – may indicate the leading edges of the CME have been sheared and are arrviing

As time goes on with the arrival, confidence that there will be a northern lights display decreases. However, it is far too early to make a call that it won’t happen given the data available.

Update: 20:00UTC Feb 14 (3:00pm EST)

A slight, but sudden, increase in solar wind that happened at the same time as a drop in the Bt from 7nT to 5nT just now may indicate the first hints of the CME are starting to arrive. The next 3 hours will be telling

Update: 19:00UTC Feb 14 (2:00pm EST)

As of now, there is still no definitive indication that the CME is approaching. Fingers crossed.

A quick update on the cloud cover forecasts for this evening. In the US – it will be very clear and cold in the Northeast, this should make for great viewing conditions for aurora hunters who can handle the cold. Most of the mid-west will be mired in clouds, but there may be chances to spot the aurora through breaks in the clouds in Montana:

Clear skies are marked in blue in this cloud cover forecast for the US
Clear skies are marked in blue in this cloud cover forecast for the US

In Iceland – there’s a storm expected to blow through overnight. There will be a brief window where if may be clear in the early evening, but clouds are expected to roll in from the southwest to the north east. The best bet for Northern Lights in Iceland will be in the northeast, the earlier the lights start the better:

In this cloudcover forecast for iceland from the IMO, an area of clear skies moves across the island before the clouds (green) roll in
In this cloudcover forecast for iceland from the IMO, an area of clear skies moves across the island before the clouds (green) roll in

In the rest of europe – conditions look very good for most of the UK and Ireland. Scotland is predicted to have some cloud cover so it may take being flexible to find a good spot to photograph. In Norway, there could be some good views in the South, but most Scandinavian photographers will have to drive to find clear skies:

Cloud cover forecast for midnight GMT in Europe shows clear skies as green
Cloud cover forecast for midnight GMT in Europe shows clear skies as green

Update: 13:30UTC Feb 14 (8:30am EST)

So far, no signs that the CME is approaching on EPAM:

EPAM shows only a minor rise around 2/13, still awaiting CME confirmation from EPAM
EPAM shows only a minor rise around 2/13, still awaiting CME confirmation from EPAM

Typically when a CME is approaching, EPAM levels will rise slowly from the moment the eruption happens through the point that the CME shock arrives at Earth. If the EPAM isn’t rising, it can be an indication that the CME will pass by Earth without any impact. Sometimes when the CME is travelling slowly, the EPAM won’t rise until just a couple hours before the arrival. It is too early to call this storm.

Update: 00:30UTC Feb 14 (7:30pm EST 12/13)

A quick update on some of the imagery coming from the flare on 2/11. When the flare happened, there was a clear CME traveling to the north and west, but there was also a shock wave that moved eastward across the Sun showing “ripples” all the way to the coronal hole in the South West. When looking at the LASCO CME imaging, the second portion of the eruption signature shows a 3/4 partial halo. Finally, the coronal dimming is fairly extensive. All three of these together indicate there’s a good chance there is a CME headed toward Earth.

Coronal Dimming:

Coronal Dimming graphic shows extent of dimming during the C8.92 Flare
Coronal Dimming graphic shows extent of dimming during the C8.92 Flare

International Space Station Flyover Visible to Millions on February 3, 2016

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Northern Lights Now – The International Space Station (ISS) will be visible to as many as 80 million Americans on the East Coast Wednesday evening, February 3rd, starting at 6:17PM in Charlotte, NC and continuing until it passes into the Earth’s shadows for viewers in Portland, ME at 6:24PM. Along the way, viewers up and down the East Coast in Richmond, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and Boston should have optimal views. The pass will be visible to viewers as far west as Chicago (Briefly), Pittsburgh, and NLN’s hometown of Burlington, Vermont.

Infographic showing ISS viewing timeline for East Coast Cities

Images above come from astroviewer.net, where you can enter your location and find your exact time to expect to see the ISS. According to Astroviewer, this pass will have a brightness magnitude of -3.3 for locations where it is passing directly overhead. For reference, that is slightly brighter than Jupiter appears when Jupiter is at it brightest. However, the ISS is much easier to see than Jupiter because it appears much bigger and it will be moving quickly across the sky. At any point in the transit, the Sun could glint off the solar panels producing a “flare” that could be reach magnitude -8 for a couple seconds.

The ISS appears so big that with a good pair of binoculars or a telescope, it should be possible to make out the shape of the station and see the identify the components of the craft. Here’s an image captured in England in April of 2015 by astrophotographer Roger Hutchinson.

ISS captured from Earth by Astrophotgrapher Roger Hutchinson in April 2016
ISS captured from Earth by Astrophotgrapher Roger Hutchinson in April 2016

The flyby will be a terrific opportunity to spur the interest of brand new stargazers. This pass will be easily accessible due to the time in the evening and because it will be a 5-6 minute pass with nearly a full arc for most people in the viewing zone. For more experienced stargazers, check out this video from the BBC on how to photograph the space station that features the photo above.

Skies should be very dark while ISS traverses the sky. The Moon will be a waning crescent and will not rise until well after midnight. For best viewing, find a dark location away from city lights and skyglow. However, even in cities, it should be possible to spot the satellite as long as there’s a open horizon to horizon view.

As is always the case with night sky viewing, clouds obstruct the view. As of this writing, 9 days out, the weather is somewhat dicey. There is a storm system predicted for the east coast Wednesday. If it is overcast where in your viewing location, you will not have a chance to see this pass. It is still early in the forecast cycle so the storm’s predicted arrival could easily be moved forward or back in the forecast between now and Wednesday, or it may not materialize at all. Any of those scenarios could leave clear skies for viewers on the East Coast.

Here’s the current GFS model run for 7:00pm EST on Wednesday Feb 3:

As of 1/26, the GFS long range model predicts a storm for the eastern US at during the flyover
As of 1/26, the GFS long range model predicts a storm for the eastern US at during the flyover

Update (1/29/2016):

There is still likely to cloudy in the Northeast for this flyover. However, the models have been showing this storm faster with each successive run. If the trend continues, the storm may clear out in time for the skies to clear up for most viewers. Here’s the latest model run showing fewer clouds than there were in the original post:

1/29 GFS model run shows the storm may move fast enough to provide many viewers with clear skies
1/29 GFS model run shows the storm may move fast enough to provide many viewers with clear skies

Winter Solstice 2015 Solar Storm Recap

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Northern Lights Now – On December 20th and 21st of 2015 the third largest geomagnetic storm of solar cycle 24 treated aurora hunters to 30 hours of dancing lights. The long duration of the storm gave nighttime photographers in North America two opportunities to see the northern lights through gaps in the clouds. Aurora reports on Twitter filled the NLN feed with images first from Wisconsin, then Alberta, Alaska, New Zealand, Northern Europe, Austria, Germany, England, Ireland, Iceland and then the North America again. Here is a chart of the official NOAA/SWPC recorded KP values from Boulder during the storm:

Boulder recorded 30 hours of G1-G2 storming during the winter solstice storm. of 2015
Boulder recorded 30 hours of G1-G2 storming during the winter solstice storm. of 2015

This solar storm started from two events on the Sun’s surface. The first was a long duration C6.69 flare at nearly dead center in the Earth strike zone. The second was a filament eruption to the south and east of the first eruption. Both events produced CMEs. Read more about the pair of eruptions NLN’s initial blog post on this storm.

Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland by Roy Smith Photo:

The CMEs from these two storms arrived later than initially predicted. Initial predictions were that the leading edge of the CME would reach Earth early in the day on December 19. The CME’s initial interplanetary shock was detected in ACE satellite data around 1520 GMT. Those 15 hours were time that many nighttime photographers wished they were sleeping instead!

Once they arrived, the two storms hit in sequence, not quite merging. As the storms played out, both had strongly negative Bz. Negative Bz is an aurora hunter’s dream. Once the field shifts south, a good show is sure to come – but we never know Bz until Earth is in the CME cloud. Space Weather scientists are still anticipate a long time before Bz can be accurately predicted in advance of a CME arrival. For now, forecasters assume arriving CMEs plasma clouds have a roughly 50/50 chance of being oriented with a Bz south.

In the Winter Solstice Storm of 2015, once the Bz shifted south, it stayed strongly south for 32 hours from 02:30GUTC on the 20th through 1030UTC on the 21st. During that time, the Bz deflection remained around -16 to -18 nT. Interestingly, after the initial shock, solar wind speeds stayed relatively low at below 450km/s for the duration of the storm. Had solar wind speeds been stronger, it’s possible that G3 level storming might have occurred. The slow wind speeds probably increased the duration of the storm (if the CME was moving faster, it would have completed it’s pass by Earth more quickly).

With a special shoutout to @VirtualAstro who helped surface some of these, here are some of our favorite images from this worldwide display of northern lights:

Swirls of green glow behind snow covered pine trees in Alaska by David W. Shaw

Green and yellow arches in the sky behind a church in Alberta by Célestine Aerden:

A string of pearls in the sky, technically called Auroral Beads, @Inukphysiker called this “lightsabors in the sky”

Another star wars reference came from Notanee Bourassa with this light-sabor aurora selfie

Team Tanner in Alberta often captures wonderful northern lights images, this anelic set was from Theresa (Tree) Tanner:

Finally, a stunning backdrop of purples and greens behind a solitary KW photography in Upstate New York:

Happy Hunting!