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April 17th 2024

Surprise Aurora By Drone From Cookstown - April 16th

On April 16th two weak CMEs arrived generating G1 conditions, however the CMEs were slow and didn't have much of a dramatic effect for mid northern latitudes with a wind speed of approx 370km/sec at most. During nightfall across N. Ireland we where dealing with regular showers, short-lived clear gaps, and a waxing gibbous moon. Under typical conditions a G1 would be of little interest for observers inland, it would be a better idea to be viewing from the coast and even then it just be a green glow on the horizon with perhaps a few faint beams.

After dark the Bz was -3, not impressive, so imagine my surprise when my friends sent me images showing a very striking aurora through breaks in the cloud, one even taken with a mobile phone showing beams. I went outside, waited for a shower to pass, then good clear sectors opened up to the north. I knew I wouldn't have time to drive out anywhere before it either clouded over or the aurora faded so I put the DJI Mavic 3 Classic drone in the air, when I took an exposure I was shocked to see beams, I even could see them on the live FPV screen on the controller.

Encouraged by this I let the drone hover in the air, just outside Cookstown, and took plenty of exposures. Then before midnight the aurora went into outburst and developed very bright well defined rays in a compact cluster to the NW. The above image was taken during this outburst using an ISO of 800 at F/2.8 for 8 sec's. I looked up and was shocked to see naked eye beams from this area near the town, in front of me where slanted red/purple beams between Auriga and Perseus and even visible with a streetlight in front of me. The outburst didn't last long and subsided after ten minutes but it was a very nice surprise as it was entirely more impressive and visible than I would have expected given the stats. This could be my last aurora catch of the Spring season before the Summer sky gets too bright but I'm not giving up yet, I might just be able to squeeze out one more.

Farewell Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks - UPDATE

Several days earlier comet 12P/Pons-Brooks experienced an outburst causing it to surge over a full magnitude in brilliance with some observers reporting a peak brightness of mag +3.5 and naked eye visibility. I had been tracking the comet every clear night in the telescope and had watched as it unfolded a visual tail 1.5 to 2 degrees in length sporting delicate gas streamers, it really was a treat to watch the nightly development of this famous comet which only pays us a visit once every 71 years. Unfortunately the comet was getting so low in the W/NW evening sky that I could no longer observe it from home and with the clock ticking I decided I would drive out to the countryside on the next clear night to see it one last time.

Sunday April 7th/8th was forecast to be clear so this was my chance and I was not going to let the comet go without saying good bye. I drove out to Davagh Forest where I met Colleen Webb, from there we watched the first stars come out but suddenly realized our location wasn't good as the ecliptic where the comet resided was hidden behind tall trees. So we jumped in the cars and began a frantic drive along the country roads, Jupiter was visible as a beacon for us, we knew the comet was 10 degrees SW of the planet but we just needed a good open view. We took the first turn-off we could see in the semi darkness and ended up at an entrance to a farmer's field where we pulled over beside a gate and a formation of round hay bales.

We got out and sank into deep mud, there was nothing we could do about that, but mud aside the location was fantastic offering us a great view in all directions. We then got the telescopes and cameras set up with growing anticipation. I was using my 10" F/5 reflector and Colleen was using her 6" F8 reflector. The sky was fabulous and completely clear, except where the comet was located. We got fleeting glimpses of Jupiter however the comet itself remained hidden by cloud. We couldn't believe it, it seemed that one cloud formation was just back-building over our target area the entire time and wouldn't move while the remaining 98% percent of the sky was clear.

We observed M13, M92, the double cluster, M42, then took images of Corona Borealis and checked the TCrB field, we also noticed that Betelgeuse had dimmed somewhat. Then just after 22.00 small horizontal strips appeared within that dark cloud bank, I began sweeping the telescope back and fourth searching, then jackpot, we found it! 12P/Pons-Brooks was beautiful, a very bright comet with well formed coma sporting an intense white condensation against the background glow of the Zodiacal Light, the comet must have been 5 degrees (or 3 finger tips) from the local horizon. The tail was fanned and dust-rich and stood out very well in the low sky, it really was showing off. Colleen and I took turns looking at it through the eyepiece, we must have observed it for 60 sec's then it clouded over and was gone, but at least we saw it and were delighted to say farewell to what has become, an old friend, in the evening sky.

I was shooting a time lapse with the 50mm on full frame, I flicked through the images and was delighted to see that I had captured the comet on several frames in those fleeting gaps. This is a crop from 50mm showing the comet and tail in the clear sector, I was actually shocked how well the tail stood out.

Deeper crop, 3 sec's at ISO6400 50mm F/1.8 at F2.2, the background glow is from the Zodiacal Light.

Very deep crop. I was delighted to get any record of it on camera at all, now I wish I had tried a telephoto lens. Unless I get a fabulous clear evening this week then this could be my very last sighting of 12P, it has been a pleasure. After 12P all attention will turn to C/2023 A3 which might become our brightest comet in years, however we will have to wait until mid October to see that one at its best.

First Thunderstorms Of Spring Chase Season - NEW REPORT

First Thunderstorms of Spring

First storm chase of 2024 which began with a bust day on March 29th then on the 30th I teamed up with Colleen Webb on Glenshane Pass to take advantage of 400 CAPE during prime heating when we hoped lift from the Sperrins would aid with cells. A bowing cluster of red cores arrived over the hills bringing our first gust front of the season while dumping a barrage of hailstones over Glenshane associated with a white core on radar. The cell then gave us several good rumbles of thunder making this our first thunderstorm intercept of Spring. A second chase to Lough Fea resulted in more rumbles making this my earliest Spring thunder since 2009. One page report with 10 images and 1 video clip. - REPORT.

Recurrent Nova TCrB Due To Erupt Soon? - WATCH

Skywatchers be on high alert for an extremely rare event which might happen in 2024, in fact, it could happen tonight! I urge you to check the constellation of Corona Borealis 'The Northern Crown' every clear night, even several times a night. Located at the SE (lower left corner) of the star Epsilon is a faint star called T Coronae Borealis or TCrB for short. This famous star, sometimes called 'The Blaze Star' is in fact a dramatic example of a reverse Nova, normally this star sits around mag +10 and can only be seen in large binoculars or small telescopes, however at periodic intervals spanning roughly 80 years this star suddenly flares in brilliance and becomes a naked eye Nova peaking at mag+2 breaking up the familiar pattern of the Northern Crown.

Previous outbursts occured during May 1866 and February 1946 with historical records highly indicative of earlier eruptions in ancient times also. The consensus is that this star is ready to erupt again at any moment. Predicitons favour Spring 2024 give or take several months but in truth no one knows for sure when it will happen, however based on previous eruptions the next one is imminent, if this happens we willl be witnessing a truly rare event and the brightest Nova in our sky since 1975.

To the naked eye a Nova looks like a new star has suddenly appeared in the sky but what we are are actually seeing is an old star going into outburst. This typically happens in binary star systems when we get a red giant with a smaller white dwarf companion orbiting around the parent star. Over time the smaller star captures material from the host star, if we could see it happening it would look like a tear drop of sellar atmosphere connecting one star to the other. Eventually a threshold is reached and a thermonuclear eruption takes place causing the white dwarf to increase in magnitude making it visible to the unaided eye.

The rise to mag +2 (Polaris) can happen extremely fast, over several hours, so it's possible the event could happen in the course of a single night where it will peak at its brightest before a slow decline sets in, so in order of having a chance of catching it in the act observers will need to be dedicated and vigilant. Corona Borealis will be well placed for the rest of the year, all one has to do is check the lower left corner with your naked eye any night the sky is clear and get in the habit of doing this often, you never know, you could be the one who witnesses this Nova as it takes to the stage, what an experience that would be.

If you are not familiar with variable stars and novae then google the subject, or better still read Leslie Peltier's Starlight Nights, he has a wonderful chapter dedicated to these stars and to his quest to see TCrB erupt, it's well worth reading. I wish you all clear skies and happy hunting. Check out the chart above from Sky & Telescope.

Benone Beach Surprise G2 Geomagnetic Storm & Comet Observing - NEW REPORT

New Report

On March 3rd 2024 a CME glancing blow from a filament eruption arrived delivering a G1 geomagnetic storm. At first the potential didn't look good with a slow solar wind speed however a sustained period of southerly Bz at -14 really got my attention. I almost didn't go aurora chasing however a hunch told me to make the effort to drive to the north coast to avoid advancing cloud. After filming an impressive rainbow with the drone I then drove to Benone beach. Upon arrival the aurora went into a dramatic outburst reaching G2 levels with vibrant rays reaching 70 degrees high with green and red colours visible to the naked eye. As the aurora danced I observed comet 12P/Pons-Brooks from the beach, at one stage the aurora was with the comet at same time which made for a fabulous experience. This aurora caught me completely by surprise, an exciting and photogenic event. One page report with 14 images. - REPORT.

Snow Devil Encounter & Lough Fea Ice Patterns - NEW REPORT

Lough Fea Ice Patterns Report

This report covers days two and three of the January 2024 Arctic cold spell across N. Ireland. On the 18th while in Dungiven a snow devil formed and actually impacted us while we stood outside before crossing the road while rotating through a garden then vanishing, this was followed by heavy convective snow showers over Glenshane Pass. On the 19th I discovered that much of Lough Fea was covered in ice for the first time since 2010, the view from the drone revealed beautiful abstract patterns which were fascinating to observe, nature's art. Also on show was an optics display surrounding the sun poised over the frozen lake. One page report with 12 images and 1 video clip. - REPORT.

Dramatic Snow Curtains Over Garvagh & Binevenagh Snow With Glory - NEW REPORT

Dramatic Garvagh Snow Curtains

My first chase of the new year. On January 17th 2024 I woke to a frozen world with -4C temps and a layer of snow, trusting model guidance I drove north after sunrise to get into a better location for snow showers and instability. During a break in Garvagh a large convective snow cell approached from the coast and began making its way inland towards me. I got the drone in the air and for the next 30 min's got treated to an impressive sight of this mean cell dropping dramatic snow curtains across the Winter landscape. This was followed by a visit to the north coast where I obtained aerial footage of Binevenagh covered in snow with spectacular low cloud and fog covering the peaks complimented by a glory. This turned out to be a highly rewarding and photogenic Winter chase. One page report with 22 images and 2 video clips. - REPORT.

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Image Reports - ARCHIVE

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Reports & Photo Shoots

Astronomy is not the only subject I'm interested in, check out my N. Ireland Storm Chasing section and view the chase reports and images which detail not only storms but other phenomena such as a moonbows, noctilucent clouds, aurora displays and exciting nature related photo shoots.

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Martin McKenna