Observing with Street Lights

Observing with Street Lights
Dark sky sites not always necessary to see the Milky Way (This image was taken ouside of a B&B in Julian, CA)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Another day waiting and searching for the northern lights; 10-second exposure of star taken from cruise ship at sea; Finally a glimpse of Northern Lights,

Greetings from Palmia Observatory (offsite some at sea heading from Iceland to Greenland),

Well this has been another great fun day and another day in our search for the northern lights.  How did this day go you ask?  It started off with a great sunrise, then with the onset of rain, a great rainbow.  Oh well, at least the NOAA aurora forecast showed some improvement and offsered some hope.  But as luck
would have it the clouds were pretty heavy, even as some of our other  cruise passengers were able to catch a bare glimpse of the lights!  Finally, we were able to see great bands of green light too!  But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so first let's start with the beautiful sunrise.

Sunrise at sea as Palmia Observatory Resident Astronomers hunt for Northern Lights off the coast I
It is so nice to wake up and see a beautiful sunrise from our cabin veranda

Next, just to get in the mood for seeing the northern lights, you should check out a great documentary by Joanna Lumley's "In the land of the northern lights."  She is a retired British actress and she tells her own personal story of reading a childrens book about the southern lights when she was a child growing up in the Far East, and wishing to be able to see the aurora for herself.  Well, she finally made it as described in her documented journey high up in Norway.  She tells a delightful story of her adventures.  Check out the video if you can!

The weather has consisted of a lot clouds and some rain and winds.  It's a,ways nice to see a rainbow, but for Astronomers this is often a sign of trouble to come.

Palmia Observatory Resident Astronomers and rain driven rainbow at sea
At least the view of the rainbow outside of our cabin veranda is beautiful

The NOAA aurora forecast offers some hope and at least some probability so seeing something.  If you run the NOAA simulation you see the arc of probability sort of moves around the pole and for our time zone here next to Iceland and going on to Greenland, the probability of seeing auroras in that area is somewhere between 30-50%

I developed my own rule of probability of seeing the northern lights and it combines three terms: (1) The Aurora Forecast, (2) The Weather Forecast, and (3) The Wine Forecast (don't have too much wine at dinner so that you fall dead asleep before midnight, when the aurora really should get going!

Screenshot from NOAA aurora prediction shows possible good viewing (Source: www.swpc.noaa.gov)

Also as our ship moves onward towards Greenland, which is located at higher latitudes, which should improve the chances of seeing the aurora.  We have a sea day tomorrow as we cruise up to a port in Greenland.  Unfortunately, even though we are travelling to Nanortalik, our port location is further to the south and not in the location shown on this screenshot.

heading out into open water towards Greenland
Iphone map program still works in Iceland, even if internet connectivity is slow at sea

Ok, the weather and clouds are just not cooperating.  Even out on our cabin veranda the sea spray from the wind is coming up and landing there and would quickly soak my camera if I stayed out there more than a minute or two.  I did manage to get one quick 10-second image of one of the visible stars.  See below.  I don't have a PC with me and can't download or transfer the images from the DSLR, so this image is just an IPhone photo of the camera Liveview screen.  This image taken with a 10-18mm wide angle lens is expanded around of this one star.  Notice how the star shows up as a curved arc with bright dots at the ends of the arc.

This image taken with lens stabilization on, does not seem to show any improvement, with respect to ship motion, to a previous image taken without any lens stabilization.  It seems that the ship motion overwhelms any benefit to the lens stabilization feature.  I initially thought that background lights from the ship was going to be the most detrimental effect, but ships motion seems to be in reality the most serious issue.

10 second exposure of star taken from cruise ship at sea
Iphone screenshot of the DSLR Liveview screen showing motion of star (Source: Palmia Observatory)

But, just as I was going to bed, I went out on the veranda in my PJ's for one last look to see if anything was happening and wow, there they were, theNorthern  Lights!  Again, since I can't transfer images from the DSLR, take a look at this one IPhone photo of the camera Liveview screen.  We are able to see lots of green glow, but have net seen any other colors.  I woke Resident Astronomer Peggy up, and after we put on some more clothes and our heavy coats, we spent about another hour just enjoying the green glow and hoped for more.  The dozen or so photos taken of the lights, even with the wide 10-18mm lens, just cannot capture the thrill and excitement of seeing the lights dance and evolve right before your own eyeballs.

Screenshot of the DSLR Liveview 10-second exposure showing green northern lights (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Screenshot of the DSLR Liveview 10-second exposure showing green northern lights (Source: Palmia Observatory)

One lesson learned during this observing episode was that the little table on our veranda was just to low for my little tripod and the camera field of view of lights was below the veranda safety railing.  So, I just held the camera in my arms close to my chest and snapped some images.  This worked out just fine or at least the images of northern lights was not too bad.  I could even see the Big Dipper in one of the images so this "Plan B" observational plan of using the hand held camera seemed to work ok.  So for dim objects, like the aurora, I could get by just with holding the camera and bracing myself so that the only motion for the camera was due to the ship rocking and rolling.

Maybe tomorrow as we get closer to Greenland we will have some more opportunities to see red and green lights and curtains of lights.  Also when we return to the observatory, where I can download and review all of the other couple of dozen northern light images, we should be able to show better views of the lights.  Hmm, maybe its time to get a newer DSLR with wifi capability so that the images can be downloaded without the use of the special cable.  We will have to wait and see!

So, Until next time,

Resident Astronomer George

If you are interested in things astronomical or in astrophysics and cosmology
Check out this blog at www.palmiaobservatory.com

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