Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Solar minimum?

We've been told that this year should be a bust for auroras. The sun goes through a solar cycle with usually predictable variations in activity of solar flares and sunspots. The cycle is about 11 years but can vary give or take a couple of years. At the low point of activity or the solar minimum, there are far fewer sun spots spewing out charged particles towards Earth. These particles collide with oxygen, nitrogen and other atoms in the upper atmosphere, causing the atoms to emit light as they release their briefly borrowed energy. And this is what we see as wonderful, magical aurora shows.

I don't know. So far this winter, the auroras have been really spectacular with some of the largest and most dynamic displays I've seen in the years that I've been spending the night down here. It's a daily occurance and you can usually count on the southern lights getting fired up around 1-2pm or so.

On of the projects here at South Pole is the All-Sky Imager run primarily by Nagoya University. The camera used to be mounted on top of Sky Lab, the orange tower next to the Dome, that used to have the nicest, comfiest lounge on station. Now the camera is operational on top of the Elevated Station and once again showing images of our night sky.

You can see them for yourself at the All-Sky Imager website. It's not updated in real time but you can still see the most recent still images of our auroras and some movie clips as well.

And we received an email from Ethan, one of the science techs running the aurora projects, that SpaceWeather.com provided this news alert:

ERUPTING PROMINENCE: Today, astronomers are monitoring an unusually active prominence on the sun's eastern limb. Even veteran observers are impressed, using words like "amazing" and "jaw-dropping" to describe the activity they have seen. One onlooker described the fountain-like eruptions as "volcanic in appearance." This beautiful activity may herald the approach of a new sunspot--or it may be just a temporary upheaval, here today and gone tomorrow.

I've not attempted to take photos of auroras because that would require me to do something with my point and shoot camera that is more complicated than leaving it on the automatic setting and pointing and shooting. Calee however is a photographic genius who doesn't seem to mind sacrificing her fingertips to the -70 degree F temps and has posted some nice shots on her blog.

So I'm not complaining if this is a solar minimum year because we've had some really incredible light shows so far this winter. I just need to find more excuses to go outside to my ringside seat to the show.


At 11:01 PM, Blogger Neal said...

Nobody knows the maximum and minimum until after it has happened and been charted. From what I have read though, this year is a bit of an unexpected min.

I'm glad you're having good aurora. The picture from the "new" camera is pretty cool!


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