Keep the North Fires Burning

This year’s Christmas present from my fiancee was surprise – a flight to see the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights to you and me). This was a bona fide excursion under the banner of Omega Holidays , to watch one of natures wonders accompanied by a learned astronomer who would point out interesting objects in the night sky along the way.

I arrived for the pre-flight pep talk at the Quality hotel in Cardiff where we were introduced to Nigel Bradbury of the Barnett Observatory in Chesterfield and Ian Morrison of Jodrell Bank who were our tour guides for the evening. They gave the assembled company of 110 enthusiastic anoraks an interesting presentation on the night sky, the formation of aurora and some of the background physics required to understand the phenomenon. We were then herded onto busses and whisked to Cardiff airport for the flight.

GreenAurora Green streamers reach for the stars

A Boeing 737-700 took us out over the Irish Sea and up the west coast of Scotland before settling on station in the north Atlantic. Lights on the aircraft were dimmed for us to dark adapt and even the aircraft’s navigation lights were turned off. The heavens spangled with the light of myriads of stars – seen with fantastic clarity from 40 000 feet before the spectral curtains of the aurora began to manifest themselves across the horizon as a green glow which stretched across the northern horizon.

It was difficult to photograph the view out of the windows as most astrophotography requires exposures of a few seconds or ore. Also, all cameras had to be hand held as there was no room for a tripod or monpod. Nevertheless after a bit of experimentation by jamming the camera against the window and holding it in position with body and arms, it was possible to get a few good exposures before the aircraft went into its figure of eight holding pattern on station, leaving you looking first at the northern sky and then at the southern for a period of minutes before the craft turned again to reverse the view. After an hour or so of staring at the magical detail of the stars and Milky Way we could see the northern lights shifting about as a haze on the horizon with occasional streamers reaching to the stars.

Lyra Lyra and Aurora

Overall it was an unforgettable experience that I would thoroughly recommend. Although I’ve seen the aurora before, it was unusual and rather novel to see them from an aircraft; and to share it with former students and friends from local astronomical societies made it a great night – definitely different from standing around in the cold waiting for the clouds to part!

words and pictures by Martin Griffiths

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