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Giant's Causeway Aurora Display - September 9th 2015

To go or not to go?, that was the question I asked myself during the afternoon of September 9th, there was a chance of an active aurora display this night due to effects from a weak CME and solar wind stream, in fact, the situation was much better than expected with a good G2 storm being active for a long time during daylight hours putting on a decent show for photographers in the USA and by evening time here in N. Ireland the activity had waned somewhat however a G1 was very likely as soon as it got dark, the KP was at 4 however the Bz was holding steady between -9 and -11 and I knew that southern tilt was going to hold and as darkness arrived I suspected the oval would drift that bit further south likely delivering a KP5 storm. I had already missed decent aurora displays during the previous two nights due to constant cloud and I felt the pressure mounting, I really needed my aurora fix however the cloud cover almost forced me to tears. The forecast was not good by evening time with a line of cloud moving in from the W with high level cirrus ahead of it, it really did not look good at all, I almost called off the shoot at this point however a last and careful look at SAT24 gave me some hope, that cloud from the W was slow moving and had almost halted over the Sperrins and I was sure that as the sun lowered and the temps dropped it was showing signs of breaking up. Furthermore a SEly breeze was making its way NW from England, crossing the Irish Sea and moving across N. Ireland, this air was dry and clear and I was sure there could well be clear breaks to the N and NE after dark, it was worth the gamble, something told me I should go for it so I trusted my instincts and filled my flask and grabbed a few snacks then hit the road N at sunset.

Once outside Garvagh I came so close to turning around and going back to Maghera for the entire sky was cloudy so I topped up the van with diesel and while doing so I saw a pristine clear sector to the low NW rapidly moving in and my excitement soared, there was hope yet, I actually began to get a very good feeling that I was going to see an aurora this night. I drove further N and traffic was light and soon I made it to the coast as dusk descended, my intentions all day had been to shoot the aurora from the Giant's Causeway however before it got dark I wanted to check out Ballintoy Harbour further E along the coast. The Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomical Society (NIAAS) - formerly known as the East Antrim Astronomical Society (EAAS) which I had been a member of years ago were holding a public observing night, in the past I had enjoyed the many Monday evening meetings there, I met a lot of contacts at the EAAS including the well known astronomer John C. McConnell who was chairperson at the time, John and I go back a long way and we shared many observing sessions together and countless late night phone calls about all things astronomical and weather related, it was John himself in conjunction with Dr. David Asher who played a major role in getting an asteroid named after me - designated 42531 McKenna - which was a night I shall never forget, so for old times sake I thought I would stop by and see who was there.

NIAAS ended up getting a great turn out, the harbour at Ballintoy was packed with cars and many people who seemed to have assembled in the growing darkness within the car park facing the sea. I wandered over and mingled with the crowd, it was dark and impossible to make out faces however I recognized a voice beside a telescope at the far corner informing members of the public about the night sky, the voice had to be Neill Patterson, I went over for a closer look and sure enough it was, we shook hands and had a good chat and got caught up on things. NIAAS had obtained permission to get all the annoying harbour lights switched off which was fantastic, the harbour was much darker and very atmospheric, I was enjoying the ambience very much. Even though it was still twilight I was sure that the sky had that suspicious look to it with the naked eye so I took this exposure with the camera set up behind the crowd and sure enough it very clearly picked up an aurora, check out the green band to the lower right, considering how bright the sky was this was a good sign and I was confident there was going to be a good show.

Another exposure revealed a faint vertical ray to the far right shooting upward into Perseus, I began to wonder if I should stay here, if this aurora kicked off I could get cool images with the public in the foreground watching the show. NIAAS had picked a great night, the sky was clear and there was an aurora, you can't get any luckier than that. I showed my camera's LCD screen to several members of the public and explained that the aurora was now visible and that if they kept watching the sky and remained dark adapted then it might kick off as soon as it got dark, the shadowy figures I spoke with sounded very excited by it all. Should I stay here or should I go to the Causeway?, I decided to get away from the crowds and stuck to my original gut instinct, there wasn't much time left until astronomical darkness, minutes really, so I jogged back to the van then drove rapidly back around the coast and made my way down to the famous Giant's Causeway, I was expecting the place to be packed however I was delighted to see that I was the only there, that was a rare event in itself, perhaps the NIAAS event had attracted more people to Ballintoy. I took advantage of this rare moment and grabbed my camera bag and two tripods and with head touch on I made my way swiftly across the numerous hexagonal-shaped basalt rocks. During the previous week I had been here at this very same location under an almost full moon with John Fagan and Andrew Glendinning shooting a very faint aurora, during that night I had quite by accident found a nice boulder to shoot from so I sought out this very same one as I liked the angle, it took some dangerous climbing with two tripods throwing my balance off but I made it to the top of my rock.

So here I was standing on top of this massive black volcanic boulder approximately 6-7ft tall looking across the calm sea towards the famous Causeway rock formation with a growing aurora band becoming more and more intense as the last glow of twilight vanished from the sky plunging the Causeway into complete darkness. I set up the Canon 600D with Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens on the tripod and worked out my composition, the aurora band was easy to see however it seemed to be resting for the time being so I began shooting a time lapse/star trail sequence with 30 sec exposures on continuous shooting, the sky was completely clear with barely a cloud in sight so conditions were perfection. Beside me to my right was another 7ft tall boulder, between these boulders was a dangerous drop onto sharp rocks below so I had to be careful, with tripod in hand I leaped through the air landing on that boulder and from it's summit I set up the Go Pro Hero 4 Silver for a night lapse, then leaped back through the night air onto the first boulder, both cameras were shooting away so I knelt down, relaxed, and breathed in the fresh air and soaked in the starlight. Suddenly after some time shooting the aurora went into outburst and numerous bright rays streamed skyward from the band like ghostly beams so I immediately stopped the star trail and began taking stills with a longer exposure. This is that first star trail with 44 x 30 sec exposures stacked at 10mm with the first rays of the outburst visible on the left.

The aurora came to life and put on a show that was even better than what I had hoped for, the Bz tipped S again triggering several outbursting events, however the first outburst just after 22.30 UT was the event of the night which would reward me with my best visual and photogenic sights of the night. These bright rays appeared at random all across the full length of the band, starting towards the NE then putting on its most spectacular performance along the N and NW sectors with brilliant phantom beams sporting red and purple colours reaching over 30 degrees tall into the star fields of Canes Venatici, Ursa Major and Lynx, the calm ocean was illuminated into sublime brilliance by the aurora with the green colour in the sky aloft easily reflecting on the surface, I even witnessed the reflection of several of the brightest rays upon the sea pointing toward my rocky look out point, the view was not dissimilar to a glitter path, I was overjoyed by the sight and was doing my usual talking to the sky in an effort to vent my excitement and awe as those beams slowly danced from left to right across the ocean horizon. I set my video camera on the rock between the tripod legs and recorded 30 min's of real time audio during the climax of the aurora, it was my intention of using this audio for any time lapse imagery I got, I thought it would be nice to record the serenity of the moment in an attempt to capture the essence of this magical night, the only sound was from the rhythmic lapping of the sea against the shore and from the periodic click from my camera shutter.

Click To Enlarge

Another 34 sec exposure at 10mm cropped into a slight panoramic format, if you click on the image you can see a larger version which does the view better justice. The beams faded and returned in a sporadic fashion as the outburst eased so I returned to taking a second sequence of time lapse/star trail images. I was glad that I had set up the Go Pro on the adjacent boulder for it had captured the entire display with outburst to perfection, I had deactivated the Go Pro external power lights to save the battery so there was no way of knowing if the camera was still recording or not, the only way was to lightly touch the LCD screen without shaking the camera then the screen would light up with all the info on display, just to satisfy myself that it was recording I had to jump through the air again and land on the second boulder to double check, thankfully it was, to say I was happy was an understatement. I knew I had captured the best part of the show so now I was able to relax and let the cameras do their thing while I watched the sky in total contentment, I was in my element and loving every second of it, I lay back on the rock and swapped a few text messages with Roisin, she was so happy the night was a success and I wished she could have been there to experience it with me.

On the approach to midnight the aurora band turned extremely intense and proudly glowed with such a splendid emerald green colour which was beautiful beyond words. Sporadic fingers of light would manifest, some of these would exceed 40 degrees tall reaching well into the Plough asterism of Ursa Major. One particular ray really stood out, this single form seemed to last much longer than all the others and extended half way to the zenith, with the naked eye it exhibited a bizarre curved shape at its lower extremities more like the sweeping dust tail of a comet and reminded me somewhat of a proton arc, I'm not saying at all this what it was, simply that it looked like a small version of such a phenomena.

Several meteors zipped across the sky leaving brief ion trains, I still couldn't believe I had this place entirely to myself, no other photographers, no annoying torch lights, laser pens or camera LCD screens ruining the view, this was complete peace and tranquility and the feeling of isolation really made that Earth-sky connection feel even stronger. I like these three rays above the famous rocks, it's quite surreal to think one is standing on an ancient lava flow going into the sea, there truly is something magical about this place, I could sense it. I made many more jumps between the two boulders to check the cameras which was quite exhilarating, landing on the top of the rock with hands searching for a hold then attending the camera and jumping back through the air to the first boulder, it was risky but I have to admit the jumps added to the adventure.

After midnight the aurora began to lower back to the horizon so I decided that I would make my way across the rocks and stand on the top for the finale, however this wasn't as easy as it might seem, the rocks were some distance away and I couldn't use any lights at all to see where I was going otherwise they would show up on the star trail/time lapse on both cameras so I had to make my way across in complete darkness, I can tell you that this place can get extremely dark on a moonless night and the rocks are extremely hazardous - even when dry - it would be very easy to twist an ankle, break a knee cap or leg or even worse, so the going was slow as I carefully placed each boot on every new rock I could make out and with my hands I groped my way across and finally made it to the top, this is one of the images from the time lapse which I cropped in closely, I just had to include it for the memory, the view from the top was amazing and the sea was still glowing green, I should have did another trail from up there however the aurora was fading and I sensed that the Causeway wanted to be left in peace so I made my way back, collected the cameras and headed back to the van.

Here's the final star trail captured during the period when the band was very intense, look how much the ocean is glowing here, this is 78 x 30 sec exposures stacked for the final result, it felt good to get two decent aurora star trails from this event, time very well spent indeed, both cameras worked hard this night and I felt mighty proud of them. I drove back to high ground and stopped briefly at Dunluce castle for a few images however the aurora had well faded so I packed up and made a well earned brew from the flask and watched the majestic stars wink over the castle then began the drive home, that drive was very easy after such a wonderful night when everything fell into place perfectly.

Time lapse video from the Canon 600D and Go Pro showing the aurora, these clips are short so I lopped them together complete with the real time audio which I captured on location while the aurora was dancing, I hope you enjoy the footage as much as I enjoyed taking it, best watched at 1080p HD. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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