for Breaking Orbit
For folks in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is the best time to see the magical displays of the aurora borealis, when nights can be set ablaze with colors as curtains of ghostly glows dance across the sky.
Viewing the northern lights just hit prime time this week with the launch of a LIVE online observatory installed on the outskirts of the city of Yellowknife, Canada.
Called AuroraMAX, the new web portal has been in the works for more than a year and is a collaborative venture between the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Calgary, and Yellowknife’s Astronomy North educational center.
A camera equipped with a fish-eye lens snaps an image of the entire overhead sky every ten seconds, making near real-time views of auroras available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Only a few days old and with a bright moon washing out the skies over the observatory, there have not been too many showy streaming videos just yet.
But if you want to see the observatory’s potential, the site includes a small gallery of time-lapse movies taken earlier this spring when operators did testing of the camera system.
An entire night’s viewing is compressed into less than a minute, creating an effect like ghostly tendrils of smoke writhing across a crystal ball.
There are few auroras visible in video made last night, but you can clearly see clouds racing across the sky, along with the nearly full moon and Jupiter, too. (Related: “Jupiter Closest to Earth Since 1951.”)
The website will also include an image gallery with still photos from previous nights.
While the image size on the computer screen is a bit on the small side for my liking, I think AuroraMAX has great potential for producing some jaw-dropping film.
Even bad weather, it seems, won’t stop the system from seeing auroras. Already there have been reports that ghostly auroral glows can be glimpsed right through thick decks of clouds.
Overall, the hope is that AuroraMAX won’t just offer an entertainment alternative to late-night talk shows but will actually help demystify some of the science behind the northern lights and bring attention to research being done on the solar-terrestrial relationship.
Timing could not have been better, with interest in all things related to the sun and its influence on our planet at an all-time high.
So for those of us not fortunate enough to have auroras put on a show in our backyards, here is a chance for armchair skywatchers everywhere to witness one of the greatest astronomical wonders from the comforts of home.
And with solar maximum around the corner, when the sun’s activity will be peaking in 2013, I predict AuroraMAX is going to get pretty busy soon. So enjoy the show!
—Andrew Fazekas is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and host of The Night Sky Guy blog and radio show. Andrew brings more than a quarter century of experience in stargazing and covering the latest in space news.