*** UPDATE 0630UT 13 September: Overnight, some UK aurora watchers caught sight of some northern lights. Reports from Northumberland, N Norfolk, and those parts of Scotland not shrouded in fog. Now it’s night time in N America, activity rates have dropped off but it’s worth keeping an eye on Spaceweather.com for the Kp index to get back up to storm level (5+), as well as the NOAA Spaceweather Now page for the Bz component to turn S. Both of these have to happen in order for a good aurora display.***
Stargazers in the northern UK should look out for northern lights tonight and tomorrow, Friday 12 and Saturday 13 September 2014.
Two large solar eruptions blasted material off the Sun on 9 and 10 September, and that material has been hurtling through space for the last couple of days. The first batch of it hit our atmosphere in the small hours of this morning, resulting in some moderate northern lights displays seen from North America. The second batch has arrived this afternoon, and could possibly trigger a dramatic display of northern lights overnight and tomorrow night.
If you’ve never seen the northern lights (aurora borealis) before then this is an ideal opportunity to catch them. It’s unlikely that this display will be as good as the once-in-20-year display we saw back in February this year, but you never know. It’s hard to predict these things until they actually happen.
If you want to see the northern lights there are a few things you can do to increase your chances:
1. Find an observing site with a clear northern horizon
2. Get away from light pollution; put towns and cities behind you to the south (i.e. head to the northern edge of your town or city, preferably further)
3. Be patient. Aurorae can be faint and indistinct at first, and you need to let your eyes dark adapt to see them properly
Last night, Thursday 27 February 2014, the UK was treated to one of the best displays of Northern Lights in the past twenty years. Twitter erupted with excitement, and then pictures, which my good friend @VirtualAstro and myself @darkskyman RT-ed and commented on throughout the evening.
Below is just a sample of some of the best images that came in last night, but before that let’s look at why this aurora display was so good.
Two days previously a large sunspot on the surface of the Sun erupted with a huge X-class flare, rated at X4.9, the strongest of the year so far. This flare blasted off material from the Sun’s surface in what’s known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). We knew that this material wasn’t aimed straight at us, but last night, two days after the eruption, it sideswiped the Earth, getting caught in our magnetic field and funnelled to the north and south poles.
It just so happened that the angle of the impact, and the timing, was perfect for evening skywatchers across the UK, and with largely clear skies across the country reports started coming in around 7pm that we might be about to see storm level activity. In the end it was rated as G2 (moderate) but the position of the auroral oval meant that even this moderate storm produced some of the best views of aurorae in the UK that I can remember.
Don’t be downhearted if you missed it; there’s a chance (55% according to NOAA) that we might see more tonight as we move through the wake of the CME. It’s unlikely to be as good as last night’s show, but still worth a look.
I tweeted the best way to see the aurora:
Then images started coming in!
This from @garethpaxton in Central Scotland (a pic of the viewfinder of his camera):
Then this beautiful one from Jim Hunter Images in East Lothian:
From @ross1772 in Newmill, Scotland
Dave @makapala uploaded a bunch of images taken from Fife to his Flickr account:
Mark Tait @marktait78 got this amazing image from Aberdeenshire, showing the verticality of the aurora:
England also got some of the action with the aurora stretching as far south as Uttoxeter, in this image by @RichardH082:
And Whitby (from @whitbyglenn)
From Ravenscar (from @andy_exton)
And NE England (via @Astro_Matt27)
Northern Ireland got in on the action too, as this amazing image from Paul Martin shows:
But of course the best of it was in the north of Scotland, such as this stunning image from Innes Mackay in Lewis:
At 0028GMT on 7 March a giant X-class solar flare blasted material off the Sun and sent it hurtling towards the Earth. To be specific it was a X5.4-class flare, the most powerful we’ve seen in 5 years. That material is due to hit some time this morning (UK time) 8 March and could result in increased aurora activity as well as potentially disrupting communications systems and power transmission. A similar storm in 1989 knocked out the power grid in northern Canada, resulting in a black out for over 6 million people.
Here’s a graphic of the storm as it heads our way, courtesy of NASA (click on graphic for animation):
Keep up-to-date with activity via Spaceweather.com
While visiting Orkney (a group of islands to the north of Scotland) earlier this month I heard people talking time and again about The Merry Dancers. Amazingly this is the name that locals give for an astronomical phenomenon all too rarely seen in the south of the UK, but on display regularly above Orkney – the Northern Lights.
I was struck by how dark the skies are in Orkney. Indeed that was the purpose of my trip – to begin working with island communities there so that they can become Dark Sky Places under the International Dark-skies Association programme.
But what also struck me was how connected people there are with the night sky, a connection that is all but lost in most of the rest of light-polluted UK.
I did several talks to public audiences while in Orkney – in Kirkwall, in North Ronaldsay, and in Stronsay – and at each of these talks the locals were full of questions, and I got a chance to speak to many of them afterwards, and it was during these conversations that I got the sense that here were communities still living under a dark night sky, who knew its changing face under the waxing and waning moon, and knew too the marvels that were visible overhead each night.
But time and again I was told about how amazing the “merry dancers” were in Orkney. I had never heard of them before and initially I was confused, as they were being brought up in the context of astronomy and the night sky, but very quickly I came to realise that the Merry Dancers is the name given to the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, by Orcadians.
These are people so in touch with their night sky that they had a pet name for an astronomical phenomenon, and everyone knew them by that name!
The origin of the name is a bit obscure, but in gaelic the Northern Lights are known as Na Fir-Chlis. In Gaelic “Na” is the definite article, while “fir” is the plural of “fair”, meaning man, or one. “Chlis” means quick, lively, or nimble.
So Na Fir-Chlis can be translated as “the nimble ones” or “the lively ones”, which is a suitable name for the Northern Lights. Legend has is that these “nimble ones” were inclined to violence, as in the proverb
When the mirrie dancers play, they are like to slay.
And this gives a clue as to the origin of the phrase “merry dancers”, as they are referred to by many people in Orkney today. It is, in fact, probably a mis-pronouncing of the word “mirrie” which means shimmering, a very suitable description of the Northern Lights.
Thus from Na Fir-Chlis, the nimble / lively ones, we have the sense of motion, of “dancers”, while the description as shimmering, or “merrie”, completes the name, properly The Mirrie Dancers.
That “mirrie” sounds very similar, especially in the Orcadian tongue, to the English “merry” leads to them being called The Merry Dancers, with connotations of happiness, but the name more properly describes their shimmering nature, and as legend has it, they are often far from happy, fighting in the sky and staining the morning moss blood-red!