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Extremely Rare Summer Twilight Aurora From Maghera - June 23rd 2015

The aurora borealis is not a rare phenomena from N. Ireland however getting the aurora in mid Summer is extremely rare indeed. In over 18 years of observing aurora and NLCs I have never witnessed an aurora in the month of June. There are a number of reasons for this, first of all Summer time is far outside prime aurora season, typically Spring and Autumn always produce the best shows however on occasion one can get surprise aurora displays out of season during the Winter months and occasionally even during the Summer. However at mid northern latitudes in northern Europe the sky never gets dark at all and it is for this reason alone why we rarely observe auroras at this wonderful time of year, this is especially so during the month of June either side of the solstice when the twilight sky is at its most intense so us night sky photographers tend to forget about the aurora for a couple of months and focus our attention on the magnificent Noctilucent Cloud (NLCs) formations which grace or sky at this time of year. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about simply step outside around midnight any night close to the solstice and look to the N and you will see what I mean. The N and NW sky sector is dominated by strong twilight with only the brighter stars visible and the area low to the horizon is so bright that only the Moon and brightest planets can be seen with the naked eye, auroras need a dark sky background to be seen easily so any brightness to that background sky at all will render them faint or invisible.

The Summer solstice arrived on June 21st and soon after NOAA announced that multiple CMEs were about to hit Earth and could generate strong G3 geomagnetic storms. The news traveled fast and social media sites were lit up like a Christmas tree with excited chat about the aurora potential however I wasn't excited one little bit at all because I knew we would not see the show, I could understand the interest if you lived further S where skies were darker but at this latitude one can simply forget about it, this was not ignorance but simply fact based on my own sky watching experiences over the years, the only thing that would shift my mind set would be a freak aurora storm which would be strong enough to come through however the chances of that happening in June were not even worth thinking about. Then the CMEs hit during daylight hours of the 22nd and it was a much more significant storm than what NOAA had anticipated. Within hours the Bz (magnetic field orientation) dipped to almost -40 and the KP peaked at 9, that's on a scale from 0 to 9 so this was as strong as it could get then NOAA confirmed that a rare G5 storm was in progress. Now I began to get excited, this was the kind of freak solar storm which might just tip the scales and produce something so I began to take notice and with a clear night forecast after more than a week and a half of cloud my interest was stirred a great deal more.

The sun set at 22.00 UT and there was a lot of chat on the net about where to go etc that always accompanies such events. Many headed to the north coast however I didn't think this would be the best policy, on a dark night the Antrim coastline would be a prime location for aurora hunting but at this time of year being further N meant that the twilight sky would be even brighter so the plan was to stay local, it was likely that observers further S in Ireland and England would have the best chance due to their darker skies. This was also prime NLC season so there was the chance of seeing NLCs and aurora too which would be exceptional so there was a lot of excitement going on despite the extremely challenging sky conditions. At 23.20 UT John Fagan from Dungannon replied to me on facebook in a very excited fashion saying he could see pink beams high in the W sky!, I actually thought he was joking and said ''are you serious?'', he then replied ''I'm away out'', when he said those words I realised John was indeed serious, a while later I walked out the back and looked to the W, I could see the Moon, Venus and Jupiter but no sign of any aurora then just as I was thinking of going out dark clouds appeared from nowhere carried on the Nly breeze and soon a large area of sky was under cloud cover, I felt extremely frustrated as it was meant to be clear and the last thing I needed was cloud on the biggest aurora night of the year. I sat in my room and rested for 30 min's then checked online for an update and got a shock, not only were the pink beams seen from Donegal but one guy was reporting an overhead aurora in Co. Cork from the southern tip of Ireland!!!, I looked outside once more and amazingly the sky was 100% clear so I wasted no time and headed out.

I drove through the bright Summer night into the countryside to the N of Maghera and pulled onto the grass verge on top of a hill which provided me with a superb elevated view across the country to the N and W. I wasn't even dark adapted, I simply opened the van door, stepped outside and looked up and there was the aurora!, my jaw almost hit the ground, I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing, an aurora less than two days after the solstice visible to the naked eye!. I could see a solitary beam over 40 degrees tall and went into a mad rush to get the camera set-up on the tripod to catch that ray incase it vanished for the night, I desperately needed a record of this. I had to attach my Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens to the camera body but due to the excitement and panic I couldn't get the bloody lens attached, it just wouldn't slot into place so I had to use my head torch and waste valuable time getting it secured then I was in business. Getting the exposure correct was challenging because I needed to collect enough light to catch the ray but not burn out the twilight too much in the process but through a quick trial and error test I found the settings which worked for me, this was 10mm F/2.8, ISO800 with 6-7 second exposures. You can see the purple beams to the NE above and to the right of tree, in fact, there are three beams visible on the image shooting up between Cassiopeia and Cepheus. I still couldn't believe I was seeing this yet inside I was already glowing with delight on getting these on camera. It was quite a beautiful scene with the blue twilight sky, stars, ghostly beams and the distant farm house on the hill. There was an NLC display reported low in the NE however clouds hid it from me so I turned my attention 100% to the aurora. I got several text messages from Paul Martin who was also seeing the beams from Omagh so I was delighted Paul was getting them too.

With the naked eye I could see new beams forming to the NW, these were easy to see and must have extended over half way up into the northern celestial dome. Here's that bright beam to the left of centre, camera is facing N and NW at 10mm again. Another beam can be seen adjacent to the first and a fainter ray can be seen above the farm house. Even while I was looking through the camera viewfinder I could easily see these rays against the twilight, this must have been a serious aurora to been seen through this at all, it was difficult to believe that this was happening here and now, and furthermore I was seeing this from the country in Maghera close to home.

The tall ray multiplied into three main components which then drifted very slowly across the twilight into the N from L to R, compare the above two images and you can see its motion relevant to the foreground. At one stage I could visually detect a compact network of closely spaced rays low in the NW towards Donegal coming through the brighter portion of the twilight glow there, that was surreal. The twilight arch itself also had a strange eerie green glow to it which didn't show up on camera however it was quite obvious to the naked eye. I had set up the Canon 600D with 10mm lens on continuous shooting for a time lapse and behind me on the grass verge was the Go Pro Hero 4 Silver doing its own night lapse. I was in my element standing on this hill on a glorious clear Summer's night with beautiful stars, deep blue twilight and dancing aurora rays for company with the scene of freshly cut fields in the air accompanied by the peaceful sound of stirring Sheep and Cows in the fields and Crickets chirping in the long grass, all of this going on to the dance of this extremely rare and silent aurora had made up for all the cloudy nights prior to this. The night was short and soon the twilight grew brighter and the aurora was washed from the sky so I packed up my gear and drove back home with Moby playing on the radio and by 02.20 UT I was back home. What a rare experience indeed, an event which took 18 years in the making and this is why it deserves it's own permanent report on the site.

The next day the long thunderstorm drought of the 2015 season finally came to an end when after hours of warm temps and high dew points the cap finally broke producing several storm cells to the W and SW across the Sperrins at 19.00 UT. I parked on Glenshane Pass facing W and got into a large field and set-up the Go Pro and did a long time lapse of the approaching storm and once again I was in my element with camera shooting time lapse while I felt warm and comfortable wearing a t-shirt in the humid air while watching storm clouds approach, this is the way Summer should be!, I heard thunder rumble in the distance and that made it official, my personal thunder drought was over, this storm had turned the tables and set the tone for a new period of weather action. Once it passed I drove back into Maghera, took the junction on the Coleraine road near home and saw an interesting sight so I pulled onto the grass verge to get a few images. This was an inverted bowl lowering under the base towards the back of the cell which was exhibiting obvious sustained inflow with clouds lifting upward into the base and curling similar to a wall cloud-type lowering, it looked mean as it stirred over this country house and for a moment I thought it was going to produce rite there but it teased me then became engulfed in precip as the cell drifted away across the fields to the NE, this is a wide angle 10mm shot. A small stubby funnel cloud did form briefly out of frame to the R under another base. A very pleasant 24 hours out with nature and if that wasn't good enough that night the models were hinting at a possible heat wave the following week and perhaps even a big outbreak of thunderstorms, it seems the wind has indeed turned in my favour after a very long wait.

Time lapse video of the rare twilight aurora beams filmed with the Canon 600D at 10mm and wide angle night lapse with the Go Pro Hero 4. Best watched at full HD in a dark room. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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