Planet Conjunction & G3 Geomagnetic Storm At Swatragh Wind Turbines - February 26th 2023

I will admit that I have a thing for celestial conjunctions, there's just something elegant, simple and beautiful about seeing several bright solar system objects in the same region of sky easily visible to the naked eye. Not only are they easy to see they are also extremely photogenic and provide the perfect excuse to get outside under the stars for an evening of astrophotography. The conjunction between planets Venus and Jupiter during February and March would be one such event, the two planets where getting closer to one another each evening and on March 1st they would be only 1 degree apart, however it was the date of February 22nd which got my attention because both planets and the waxing crescent Moon with earthshine would be visible within 10 degrees of sky, furthermore the angle of the ecliptic would be steep allowing the show to be well presented in the SW-W evening twilight for several hours before setting, and if that wasn't motivation enough it was also the only night forecast to be clear so a photo shoot was arranged.

It was perfectly clear however the models were forecasting NWly wind gusts of 18-20mph with the Met Office showing gusts to 28mph. Not only would this be very uncomfortable to be standing out in for several hours but time lapse photography could be hampered if the tripod even trembled at all in the gusts, however we just had to deal with it and decided that even if the time lapse shoot didn't work out we would still get images of the event, we all just craved a nature fix anyway. I packed the gear and the 10" F/5 reflector into the van, high in the SW the trio where already showing off for all to see, they looked spectacular already and it was literally just minutes after sunset so I couldn't wait to see them when the sky got darker.

I arrived at Beaghmore Stone Circles in Co. Tyrone and met photographers John Fagan and Paul Martin, the sky was completely clear when we arrived then suddenly a line of convection blew in from the NW and seemed to take forever to pass over, it got to the point that we thought we were going to miss the show completely, it was clear either side of the hail shower line but cloudy where we were located, you couldn't make it up. We waited in the vehicles while hail stones peppered the ground then suddenly a clearance yawned open in the clouds and there was the triple conjunction in all its glory, it was absolutely stunning against the black cloud tops contrasting against the dark blue twilight background, both planets where like bright diamonds and between them the crescent Moon with earthshine was a sight to behold, we all wowed with delight.

We shot a time lapse from the car park with black clouds passing below the spectacle then ventured inside the circles to find a better composition. I settled for the tree tops in the woodland adjacent to the circles as my main foreground subject and shot two more lapses, one with the 50mm F/1.8 and the other at 15mm wide angle. The wind was cold and raw and at times blustery but the tripods held out well. At times decaying hail showers would pass over the conjunction and the falling ice crystals would cause periodic pillars of light above Venus and the Moon which really added to the drama. The above image is my favourite from the night, almost like a festive scene.

I let the camera keep shooting, Paul and John where busy shooting within the circles so I went back to the car park and took out the telescope. I wanted to say farewell to comet C/2022 E3 ZTF as I knew with the comet's lowering height every night and brightening Moon moving eastwards into that area then this likely would be my final visual observation. I found the comet easily in western Orion, just below magnitude +7 with a dust tail 1 degree in length, the tail looked slightly curved as it left the coma, a soft condensation was at centre which I rated at DC:4. This was my 18th night of observing this comet, this final observation felt fitting from such a dark location with a beautiful conjunction happening at the time.

I went back into the circles to check the cameras and meet the guys, Rhua was with us too, she hadn't been out on a night shoot before so she didn't know what was going on but seemed to enjoy the unusual change in her routine. I managed to complete the time lapse just before the conjunction set and cloud moved in for good. This is an image of a hail shower falling over the scene causing halos around the trio, you can see the moonlit hail core more dense on the right side. With that we called it a night, we all agreed it was a very good shoot and the conjunction was very impressive, in fact, from my own personal perspective I would rate it as the most beautiful naked eye night sky phenomena I've seen in months, maybe even since comet NEOWISE, it was also the best conjunction since the Venus-Jupiter event in 2012.

Now to the main event, it truly feels like a very long time since I've observed a decent aurora display, this was mainly due to the Sun being quiet and prolonged cloudy nights, there were plenty of G1 events over the last few years however they seldom interest me unless I happen to catch them by accident during a night shoot, otherwise I wouldn't travel a long distance just to see this caliber of aurora, to get a decent standard an aurora should be G2 or stronger. The tables have now turned, thanks to the Sun's eleven year solar cycle we are now entering a very active phase on the run up to the next solar maximum in 2025. The Sun has been impressive, generating numerous and regular large and complex active regions and many of these have produced flares and CMEs. The problem has been that either the CMEs missed Earth or the strong flaring stopped at soon as the source sunspot region faced Earth and hence in a geoeffective position near the meridian, this happened so often it almost seemed like design and it was getting to the stage that my friends and I had almost given up on the current Spring aurora season, after all, in another two months the nights will be getting shorter and too bright to capture aurora as we approach NLC season.

Then suddenly everything changed when a new large sunspot group designated AR3234 rotated into view and harbored a complex magnetic field with solar flares, and just as the region entered the geoffective zone it flared and unfurled a CME. Then to make matters more exciting another active region to the west of the meridian produced a flare and strong fast moving CME too associated with a filament eruption, and in conjunction with this double whammy there was a background CH solar wind stream event happening at the same time. NOAA had forecast G2 storms with a high chance of reaching G3 levels, their models indicated the first CME to hit on February 27th or 28th. Everyone in the aurora chasing community was excited and were monitoring the charts for the first signs of a hit. The problem was we were once again having major cloud issues thanks to high pressure however there was a small chance of a few breaks on the 27th.

On February 26th Roisin, Rhua and I spent the day at the north coast, despite showing 90% cloud the sky was mostly clear, sunny and with great clarity. I felt agitated all day, I couldn't shake off the feeling that something was going to happen that night even though the first impact wasn't expected until the following day. I met Nigel McFarland at the coast and we mentioned how beautifully clear it was and why couldn't the aurora happen tonight in these perfect conditions. Roisin and I had dinner out and I spent most of the time on my phone checking the charts, which were all dead, I thought this is just typical of this season and thought nothing more of it. We made it back home to Cookstown just as the sun was setting, I had a quick dinner and topped up the charge on my DSLRs just in case. I went online, did the rounds, then suddenly social media lit up with reports that the CME had arrived much earlier than expected!, I checked DSCVR and saw a steep rise in solar wind speed, protons and a dipping Bz, all signs the CME was indeed about to hit. I literally grabbed the gear and warm clothes, topped up the van with diesel in town, then made my way to the coast as fast and safely as I could.

I will admit my adrenaline was pumping, I hadn't felt this excited for a night sky event since NEOWISE so I couldn't wait to get there, I still had one and a half hours to drive to get to the Co. Antrim coast, I wanted to be there for the better foreground. The view out the windscreen was fantastic, a deep blue twilight sky with Venus and Jupiter like two blazing diamonds which looked spectacular in their own right, if it wasn't for the aurora potential I would have pulled over and shot a time lapse as the scene was so good. I got a phone call from Nigel, he informed me the Bz was -17 and wind speed was over 600km/sec, he was making his way to the coast as well and informed me that Colleen Webb was too, we decided we would meet at Ballintoy. I had planned to stop at a filling station for snacks as I had a feeling this was going to be a long night but after hearing about the -17 Bz I just kept on driving.

It was clear during the entire drive, I began driving along the twisting road towards Ballintoy Harbour and could already see the aurora glowing through the windscreen. When I arrived Nigel and Colleen were already out taking test shots, I quickly took one of my own looking across Roark's Cafe, the sky was transitioning from twilight to darkness and the aurora was already putting on a show in the form of a bright green arc with rays manifesting like ghosts from the darkness.

We made our way down to the beach to the left of the car park and got set up, I began shooting a time lapse with the full frame at 15mm F/2.8, then stood back to relax and enjoy the show.

The aurora ramped in activity, now we could see twin tiered arcs, both vivid green in colour, and all along these arcs where dozens of well defined green rays/beams, they even showed the classic 'picket fence' structure, beams began moving swiftly from right to left along the arcs then left to right. The highest arc was 20 degrees tall visually however above this a red glow was growing which was showing up well on camera. Nigel, Colleen and I were loving standing on this dark beach watching the aurora dance, it had been so long and now the moment had finally arrived. Then a large bank of cloud came in from the east, you can see it on the image, it was moving slowly from right to left, we quickly became frustrated because we knew it would soon cover the aurora and end the watch for us just as the solar storm was ramping up.

We just assumed the cloud would pass over but it didn't, all we saw was cloud all around us, SAT24 wasn't much help, at night the IR view has low resolution so only the highest clouds show up brighter, anything lower level is difficult to make out. I received several phone calls from John Fagan who was watching the show from Beaghmore Stone Circles, he couldn't believe we were clouded out, John was getting completely clear skies and was telling me the aurora went into outburst and was epic, he was seeing a sky full of red beams 50 degrees high, he was on a natural high and in awe with what he was seeing in perfect conditions. At this point I almost felt like crying with disappointment, all that driving today to get clouded out and miss that epic outburst, it really felt unfair.

Nigel, Colleen and I discussed options and decided to wait a while in case it did clear. The aurora was so bright it was visible through the cloud at times, like a shaft of brilliant green light or vivid fountains of light coming up from the horizon from nowhere, it was obvious a significant event was happening. We had a snack and tea to centre ourselves and come up with a plan, in the meantime I shot a time lapse of the northern horizon using the 50mm F/1.8 lens, the rays could be seen dancing through the low haze and cloud, I actually like the mood in this image, it feels tranquil and like a painting. After a substantial wait we decided we would see nothing sitting here, we drove to the church and looked across to the eastern horizon, no clearance at all, not even one star, it looked game over unless we made a good decision fast.

Going by the sightings online it was obvious that it was much clearer inland, this cloud from the east would eventually make its way west however it was slow moving so we decided to drive back south inland to hunt for clear skies, this was the very opposite of storm chasing, we wanted to get away from the clouds this time. Our three vehicles drove to Bushmills, cloudy, then through Coleraine, cloudy, then as we approached Garvagh we began seeing breaks overhead and stars in the sky, our hopes soared, could this move actually pay off?, we kept driving south then entered Swatragh and the sky was completely clear!!!, we were delighted beyond words, we didn't have time to hunt for foreground so just pulled up on high ground at the wind turbine farm and immediately got out with the gear.

I climbed over the gate and just as I landed on the grass I could hear yells and wows, I looked up and saw a spectacular aurora in the course of a major outburst. I set up the camera as quick as I could and got this exposure, there's slight movement to the stars here as the tripod was on spongy ground, or else I knocked into it in the rush.

Stopping again for another image, that's several of the wind turbines to the left. Nigel and I made our way through the wind farm across trails and gravel frantically looking for a good spot. Colleen was making her way through the darkness too, then we heard a yell from another person on the road, it was my mate Conor McDonald whom I hadn't seen in a long time, he too was out aurora chasing, we couldn't believe running into one another under the light of the aurora.

We ascended a grass hill and got our cameras set-up, Conor, Nigel, Colleen and myself, it felt great to be in the company of others who are as passionate as myself, people who love the sky and who live for spectacular transient events like this. I began shooting what would be my best time lapse of the night, 15mm F/2.8 at ISO6400 and taking 5 sec exposures with the full frame Canon 5D Mark IV. I was deliberately shooting with a short shutter and high ISO, I needed as many frames as possible for a good time lapse and I wanted to freeze the motion of the beams which were moving fairly rapidly, a faster shutter will show less motion so the structure will look sharper. At this moment in time a major outburst was happening and we were all buzzing, now we were glad we had drove back inland.

We could see naked eye beams peeking at 50 degrees high, that's 100 apparent full moon diameters, the tallest beams speared Cepheus just below Polaris. On show was our twin tiered green low level arc complex with enhancements and patches moving within, shooting up from this were huge rays like search lights, I could see green and subtle but obvious red colours with the naked eye and also a strange dark orange colour. At this moment in time the solar wind speed was greater than 700km/sec, we all agreed this was the best aurora we had seen since 2014, and by a strange coincidence that aurora was also red and in February. We would learn the following day that this was the main event, both CMEs had hit at the same time generating a G3 geomagnetic storm, the strongest in nine years. The G scale only goes up to G5 so this was a moderately strong solar storm, a G3 has a KP value of 7, the KP scale peaks at 9 so this was a very respectable event.

Before midnight the beams faded somewhat however there was a lot of action going on within the twin arcs. The Moon was almost at first quarter phase and the aurora seemed unaffected, the aurora simply dominated the sky with its presence. I looked around me, behind was a forest of huge dark wind turbines, most of which had their lights off, it was surreal seeing their enormous forms against the starry sky while aurora beams meandered across the entire N to NW sky sector.

After midnight the outburst began to subside then that cloud we had escaped had finally caught up with us and we were clouded out for the rest of the night. We were VERY lucky to have had clear skies and for the CME to have hit early, this was an amazing stroke of luck. The solar storm continued all through the night and into the next day with solar wind speeds over 800km/sec which is the fastest I've seen since the last solar maximum. I made it home for 02.30 UT and I was buzzing all night into the next day on a natural high from Mother Nature.

The next night the aurora was still going however not as intense as the previous night, the country was mostly cloudy however a brief clearance came in from the east which moved inland, the aurora was captured from Co. Down, Lough Neagh, Toome and Maghera. In Cookstown I could see a low clearance to the N/NW and could see the aurora as a bright enhancement to the sky making this my 178th aurora sighting. I could tell the sky was going to cloud over soon so there was no point driving out so I instead got the Mavic 3 Classic in the air just to see if I could even pick up a hint of aurora.

I hovered at 120m outside Cookstown, the night was calm and steady, I experimented with 4,6 and 8 sec exposures and ISOs between 800 and 6400. I was actually pleasantly surprised to get the aurora on camera, you can see a portion of the band with a green beam with faint purple on top, Ok, its not a spectacular scene or pretty but the fact that I was able to get it all with a drone made this capture a rare novelty. If only I had thought of trying it on Sunday night when the aurora was much more spectacular. The solar storm soon waned and reduced back to a G1 as the CMEs passed Earth outbound to the outer solar system.

Time lapse of the February 22nd triple conjunction from Beaghmore between Venus, crescent Moon and Jupiter with brief pillars

Time lapse of the aurora from Ballintoy and Swatragh, it's interesting to watch the height of the beams change in response to the N and S shifting of the Bz component. After a quiet start to the year nature has finally woke up, February has been good with the best shows of the month all in the same week, best conjunction since 2012 and best aurora since 2014, I hope this is a start of a new trend of sky action to come. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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