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Aurora’s bright lights dazzle WA

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Mari Spanja, Reporter

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Auroras occasionally illuminate WA’s skies in ribbons of bright and brilliant colours.

With winter being the best time to look for an aurora, many of us are still in the dark about how they appear, so we went looking for experts who could shed some light on the topic.

Auroras natural light displays in the sky, well known to be found in places such as Alaska and Finland, however, it’s worth noting that they are just as visible in WA too, if you know when and where to look.

 

HOW ARE AURORAS FORMED?

Director and astronomer of Astronomy Education Services and manager of Gingin Observatory, Richard Tonello, said Auroras are formed through the interaction of charged particles from the sun with the upper levels of our atmosphere (ionosphere).

There are two types of auroras that can be seen on Earth. The Aurora Australis are from the South Pole and these reach up to WA. The other type is the Aurora Borealis, which are found towards the North Pole near Canada.

Mr Tonello also said that the chemicals in the atmosphere are why our eyes see different colours in the auroras.

“The photon of energy being knocked out of the molecules and atoms within the atmosphere are emitted at a certain frequency, which our eyes translate to a vivid colour.”

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN THEY WILL APPEAR?

There are a few techniques used to predict how or when auroras will appear.

“Auroras occur mainly during an 11 year solar cycle called Solar Maxima. We think this cycle is linked with the magnetic field entanglement under the solar surface,” Mr Tonello said.

Through this observation, the surface of the sun is monitored daily for a solar storm.

“Where the sun exhibits active regions, this may give rise to a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) which will produce a Solar Storm.”

“There are a number of Solar observatories in orbit that constantly monitor the sun for any activity. Spacecrafts like SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) are the two main players.”

One of the most accurate ways for us at home to predict when an aurora will appear is through the Kp-index found here (the page is updated every 20 minutes). 0 represents the least likeliest time they will appear, and 9 is the highest.

Keep note that auroras are based on sunspots, and massive bursts of solar winds and therefore scientific predictions can be unreliable.

 

WHERE IN WA SHOULD YOU GO?

It is certainly possible to see auroras in Perth, however the best way to see them is in places further South such as Albany. This is because the auroras form closer to the poles and hence will be better seen.

Regardless, light pollution can weaken the effects of auroras so by avoiding bright areas you will allow yourself for a better experience.

Mr Tonello said his first experience seeing an aurora was just 2km north of the Yanchep turn off on Wanneroo Road.

“It was incredible! Patches of sky glowing a deep, red colour with long, pale green “streamers” originating from the southern horizon and crossing way overhead. The show lasted for a couple of hours. I heard later that people as far north as Meekatharra and Carnarvon also saw a red glow, low on the southern horizon.”

Roger Groom, astrophotographer and astronomy researcher also located in Perth, said that his favourite places to see auroras are just over the Perth hills.

“You can pick almost any clear area away from lights, but Lake Leschenaultia has been my go-to place for many years. Mundaring Weir and surrounding areas are another good area. You do need a relatively clear unobstructed south horizon though,” he said.

Another town just one hour from Perth is Toodyay, which is located on the Avon River in the Wheatbelt region. Its clear and uninterrupted views of the landscape makes it a popular night-gazing spot, especially for astro-photographers.

Gingin is also a great location as its home to the country’s largest public observatory. It’s just one hour from Perth and has accessible dark skies.

 

HOW MANY CAN YOU SEE?

Mr Groom said he had lost count on the auroras he’d seen in WA.

From 2003 to 2017 had has seen around 10 occasions that auroras were long and vivid enough to be photographed.

“Aurora Australis is more commonly visible from Perth and nearby than most people realise. However you need to be persistent.”

“You might look 10 times and see them once, and you need to know when to look.”

 

WHAT COLOURS CAN YOU SEE?

Different gases give off different colours when they are stimulated.

The most common colour seen in an aurora is green and forms of yellow, which is created by oxygen particles colliding. Colours also included are blue, red and violet, which is created from nitrogen.

These bright colours dance across the sky in all shapes of patterns and not a single aurora is the same.

It can be difficult to capture these colours so camera’s that allow for long exposure will work best as they can let more light in.

Mr Groom said each colour in an aurora could tell you information of the lights position in comparison to you.

“If you see pink in the photographs you are seeing the top of the aurora, and so the base is a long way over the horizon and you are only just seeing the top of it.”

“If you see green in the photographs you are seeing more the base of the aurora and so you will generally have a much better show of both green and pink.”

 

Get Involved: Astronomy Groups in Western Australia.

The Astronomical Society of Western Australia Inc. – click here

The Astronomical Group of Western Australia – click here

Astronomy WA (Western Australia’s Astronomy & Space Science Community) – click here

Stargazers Club of WA – click here

The Science Network of WA – click here

Photo by Martin Jernberg

 

 

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Aurora’s bright lights dazzle WA