Did I See The Northern Lights Last Night?

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Around eleven o’clock was night I went out with Harry, our Cockerpoo into the back garden and I looked up at the sky. For once it was clear. I looked to the north and didn’t see anything. Looking further around to the west, just near the crescent moon was a feathery marble cloud effect. Was it the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis or just a cloud?

Now I’ve always looked to the North for the Northern Lights, so to see something in the West made me unsure. Also the effect was very pale and did not appear to be green as you always see them it in photographs and on the telly. Also they didn’t appear to shimmer as you see on films, but that is because they are always speeded up. In reality it’s just like watching a cloud change shape; in real time you don’t notice it. But there again after a few minutes the shape had changed, but the effect was still in the same place in the sky. If it was a cloud, surely it would move across the sky? And in all the years of looking at the sky, (40ish) I have never seen a cloud affect like that, either during the day or at night.

More investigation was called for….

On Tuesday night BBC’s Star Gazing Live had the most fortunate bit of serendipity. One section of the mini-series was focusing on the Northern Lights and just before the programme came on air, the Sun gave off a massive Solar Flare or Coronal Mass Ejection. The solar flare sends charged particles hurtling into space. When the particles collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere at the magnetic poles, the glowing effect is seen. Star Gazing Live predicted that ejection would arrive around midnight on Thursday. The flare was reported to be so big that it could be seen as far south as Manchester. I do know someone who a couple of years ago saw the Lights whilst walking his dog at night on the moors above Saddleworth so it is entirely possible given the right conditions that we could see the Lights.

Liss and I drove up past Pott Shrigley to the back of Lyme Park, the nearest, highest place away from street lights, although the glow from Manchester to the west could still be seen. It was very chilly up there (1 deg C) and a bit windy and in the rush to get out I forgot to take my gloves and body warmer. The “cloud” effect could still be seen in the same place to the West, but also further towards the North. Being a photographer, whatever the effect was I just had to take some photographs of it. Liss, being not overly impressed with the effect, retreated back into the warm car and to watch the sky from there.

For any photography at night using natural light you always have to use you tripod ; there is no way you can hold the camera steady for long enough to the exposure required. After a frantic search I fortunately managed to find my quick release plate that I recently removed so I could attach my sash camera strap. I set the lens focus to infinity, opened the aperture to the widest at f4 and the sensor speed to 3200 ISO. The lens was set at its widest angle to allow as much sky to be seen in the frame. Using the Bulb setting I exposed for a count of 5 seconds, the results weren’t too bad. I was too cold and too dark for anything too fancy so it was then just a matter of finding a reasonable bit of foreground to give the image some context. After a few minutes I packed my gear away and when I looked up again, the effect was gone.

So you can see my results What do you think? Aurora Borealis or an unusual cloud effect? You can see small clouds in the lower part of the image, but at the top is an interesting marble effect. When I processed the image at home, the colours stayed the same, no green or reds as often seen in the lights. I’m still unsure. My conclusion is that we were right on the Southern edge of the effect and so the Lights could not be seen in the same way as it would if further north, but there was still something of the Aurora to be witnessed.

So my quest to see (and photograph) the Northern Lights continues until I can confidently say I have seen them. But as in the next few years there is to be a peak in the solar cycle, the chances are good. Watch this space !
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