The Greatest Light Show on Earth

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Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed them to be giant spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit of Alaska considered them incarnations of the seals, salmon and deer they hunted. The Romans named the Aurora Borealis after Aurora, the goddess of dawn. For centuries the Northern Lights have entranced civilizations with their beauty. The best way to see the lights was to go near the poles to observe the sky. Now, that’s all changed. The AuroraMax project is giving people around the world the opportunity to see the lights live every night.

The project, spearheaded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the University of Calgary and a group called Astronomy North, is designed to showcase Canada’s unique view of the lights. Two cameras are set up around Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to capture the Aurora Borealis. The images are streamed on the CSA website live and in colour. AuroraMax was officially launched on September 20 with its first live viewing of the lights. The cameras turn on after dusk at around 9:30 PM MST and run throughout the night.

The Northern Lights are one of the most beautiful and dynamic phenomenon on the planet so the CSA and its partners had to ensure that the technology they employed would do the lights justice.

“When the science team looked at the cameras across the country they were always in black and white a lot of them are not high resolution. We wanted to show something to the public that is jaw-dropping so we agreed that the technology that existed wasn’t enough,” said Ruth Ann Chicoine, the CSA’s national project manager. “The University of Calgary produced for us the most sophisticated camera that we know of in North America for the Aurora Max project.”

Eric Donovan is the man who made the cameras for this project possible. He is the lead physicist for AuroraMax and his role is to maintain the cameras and study the data of the changes in the Aurora.

When Donovan worked on a project with NASA in 2002, the only technology available was white light cameras. These types of cameras make it difficult to differentiate between white clouds and white light coming from the Aurora and don’t provide the full experience.

“About two years after the white light project started with NASA we started a colour camera project called rainbow back in about 2004. We bought, and deployed, and ran and learned about colour technology,” he said.

The camera that the project uses is actually a consumer ba

Eric Donovan is the lead physicist on the AuroraMax project

sed single lens reflex (SLR) camera. The difference is that the researchers have improved the optics of the camera, making the image much more defined at such a large distance.

“You’re watching the interaction of space stuff with the Earth and you’re watching it on a grand scale and you’re seeing on a very simple technology,” said Donovan.

Taking a picture of the night sky with this simple technology can be difficult. Often, cameras do not have the capabilities to read such a small amount of light at such a great distance and cannot be held in a steady position long enough to protect against blurring. The camera sits on a tripod surrounded by a dome. The dome is heated warmer than the snow but cooler than freezing so that any possible snow build up is evaporated. The camera’s shutter stays open for five seconds then is closed for the sixth. This way, the light from the aurora has enough time to enter the camera but problems can occur when the Aurora is moving very quickly which can create a blur.

“First of all when it’s moving very quickly there isn’t a lot you can do,” he said.  “Imagine trying to take a picture of a car and you open the shutter for one second there will be this big streak across the image – you can’t tell how big the car is from that image.”

This means that the AuroraMax isn’t very useful for people who are looking at the movement of the lights, rather than the structure. Donovan admits that more often than not, the images don’t come out very well.

“Half the time it’s cloud and another quarter of the time the camera is blurry which means that we have thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of useless data. There is a lot of garbage you have to look at but then you get to look at this golden stuff,” he says referring to some of the most spectacular displays of the night sky.
These displays occur when charged electrons from the Sun collide with atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Depending on the type of gases the atoms react with it produces either red, green, purple or blue. The energy that the mixture creates is emitted in the form of light and it is billions of tiny flashes that give the illusion of the dancing lights. The lights form a crown shape around the North and South poles because of the strong magnetic field found there.

The AuroraMax project launched as the sun’s activity is on the rise. Every 11 years the sun becomes more active. The high point is known as solar maximum and is expected to occur in 2013. This means that the Auroras will be more dynamic with more and quicker movements.
“Right now we’re in a period of the sun’s activity called Solar Minimum which means that the activity is low, but we’re going into a period where that is going to increase. Canada does have a speciality in monitoring the sun and its cycle; it’s actually the oldest field of science in the Canadian space program,” said Chicoine.

“I think it will be more interesting as we approach solar maximum,” says Donovan. “As the sun becomes more active the solar wind driver becomes more structured and dynamic, and the Aurora becomes more dramatic. The sun has been ridiculously quiet the last five years. So as we approach solar maximum the Aurora will get more interesting.”
AuroraMax has been deemed a success by both Chicoine and Donovan. On the first day alone there were so many hits to the webpage that CSA technicians thought their page was being hacked. People from all over the world have been logging on to see what Canada has to offer.

“It was a wild success, we had a huge response from places that I wouldn’t expect: South America has accounted for a large proportion of our traffic in addition to the people you’d expect of Canada and the United States,” she said. “We’ve seen AuroraMax covered on websites where I can’t even tell what the language it’s in.”

Beyond the beauty Donovan sees a more functional use for the AuroraMax. He thinks that Canadians from across the country will be able to enjoy the lights not only on the computer, but live in their own backyards.

“The idea would be if you wanted to see the Aurora from Toronto we could give people a heads up, because you wouldn’t want to go out every night at one AM in your car and drive West on the 401 and look up and say ‘nothing tonight’ and drive back into town. We could show people, you know that there is a phenomenal Auroral display happening right now over the whole region between Toronto and London and it’s crystal clear skies. So if you want to see it, head out.”

He said that various news and weather organizations such as The Weather Network and the CBC have shown interest in having the ‘space weather’ as part of their programming.

People have been fascinated and awed by the lights for centuries and today it is easier than ever. For Chicoine, it is the opportunity to see the night sky like never before and admire a unique phenomenon. “It’s the greatest light show on Earth and we’re hoping that people will be awed and inspired by the beauty of science.”

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