A Moonlit Display of the Northern Lights

May 8, 2001
All photographs taken between 11:30 p.m. on May 8, 2001, and 12:30 a.m. on May 9, 2001

The "Airport on the Prairie"
I had arrived at Denver International Airport - the "airport on the prairie" - a couple of hours prior to my departure back home. I had adequate time to enjoy a leisurely supper - which is why I arrived at the airport early - and besides, I didn't know if the airline would have something more substantial than pretzels to eat on the flight home.

Then, it struck my eye - a computer that offered free internet access. I entered my e-mail address and logged on.

I quickly checked my favorite sites to see if there would be any remote chance of northern lights later this evening. One of the first things that I noticed were some comments on www.spacew.com from Tom who lives in the far north. He reported seeing the northern lights, even though the skies are not fully dark there anymore.

This really peaked my curiosity. I quickly checked the forecast on www.spaceweather.com, and looked for more information on www.spacew.com. Then I reviewed the weather forecast. The infrared satellite photo showed that the nearest clouds were in eastern Montana. All indications looked like a go tonight - except I forgot to check when the moon would rise.

Something I Did Not Want to Hear
Later on, as I walked to my gate, I heard something that I did not want to hear. One passenger said that the plane had too much fuel, and so they were going to limit the number of passengers that could get on board. I thought, "oh no." However after all the commotion, the airline decided to relieve the airplane of about 1,500 pounds of fuel so that almost everyone could get on.

I always thought that a plane was built to carry a full load of fuel, passengers and luggage. My vehicle can! I've never had to tell someone that they can't ride in my vehicle because of weight limits. And it would have been insulting to that person to siphon off some fuel before driving away.

Finally we took off, about 15-to-20 minutes late. As we neared Bismarck, it was hard to tell if there were any clouds in the sky, although I had a great view of the engine under the wing. I could only see a tiny bit of the sky behind the wing to the southeast, and saw just enough of a large, orange circle on the horizon to know that I had another possible detriment to my seeing the northern lights.

Potential Good, But No Sightings in the U.S.
I arrived at home at about 11 p.m., and checked all key web sites - the potential still looked good. However, a couple of people on the "IRC aurora" chat said that there were no reports of sightings of the northern lights (except for the one from Finland), and that things didn't look promising.

I was too keyed up from the plane ride and I knew that I wouldn't fall asleep for a while anyway, so I told the audience on the "IRC aurora" chat that I was going aurora chasing.

I left at about 11:10 p.m. and drove north. Usually when I get about five miles out of town, I can tell if the northern lights are active. But there wasn't even a glow in the northern sky. The situation was the same every time I looked north, and so I thought, "why am I wasting my time?  I should turn around and go home."

On the other hand, I was almost to the home farm, and even if there were no northern lights, I could wait 15-to-30 minutes for some activity before calling it quits.

I stepped out of my vehicle at about 11:30 p.m. thinking that this was a chase turned empty.

Was I Ever Wrong! (for the 132,152th time)
My eyes quickly adjusted to the night sky, and amazingly, the northern lights were out - despite a bright moon to the southeast that was about 30 degrees above the horizon!

I had a new 28 mm lens with a 2.8 aperature, and I thought - good time to see what it can do - kind of like testing a new vehicle (a new used vehicle in my case). The activity was moderate. I thought, "what would this look like without the influence of the moon?" Wow!

I quickly took photographs at a number of locations to capture different foregrounds. As I walked from site to site, the only things that caught my attention - besides the northern lights and the bright moon - were some howling coyotes, and a brisk, cool southeast wind.

I was getting tired as I stopped at the last location to take photographs. All of a sudden, the activity grew stronger, and I thought that I saw a hint of red in some rays to the northwest.

Time to Go Home
Finally, I got in the vehicle, and drove back to Bismarck. At one point I stopped and saw what looked like some faint activity directly overhead. Upon arriving home, I posted my comments on www.spacew.com and then crashed.

The following day, I sent my photos into www.spaceweather.com. I knew that this activity would not be seen by many people because of the twilight conditions to the north, and the activity was too weak to be seen down south.

Tips for the Next Time - Which Can't Come Too Soon
The same day, I also wrote down some notes that will help me the next time when chasing the aurora.

Number one, a full moon isn't always a deterrent to seeing the northern lights.

Number two, always bring a flashlight along, even if there's bright moonlight. I dropped my lens cap in the tall grass, and it took me a couple of minutes to sweep the grass with my hands before I found it (luckily there were no ticks - I think they were sleeping). I was also walking around with my camera and tripod in a pasture where the grass was high, and it would have helped me to know where my next step would land - no accidents though.

And finally, number three, I usually take photographs with a 50 mm, 1.4 aperature lens. This trip, I used my new 28 mm, 2.8 aperature lens. However, my big mistake was that I didn't increase exposure times, even though the 2.8 aperature lens is 2 f-stops higher. Thus, the only photographs that turned out were those that were exposed for about 30 seconds.

If I had used my 50 mm, 1.4 aperature lens, every photograph would have turned out.

I certainly will remember this the next time I go out to take photographs of the northern lights - which can't come too soon.



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