By Leonie O’Sullivan, February 2 2024—
After moving to Canada a few years ago, I was eager to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. Growing up, I was mesmerized by cinematic northern lights portrayals like those in Disney’s Brother Bear. Last year in February, I was lucky enough to see the northern lights firsthand. Magnificent green and red waves gracefully danced across the sky, leaving me wonderstruck as I gazed from below.
To see the aurora, you need to be in the right place at the right time. If you don’t fancy late-night vigils, clinging to your phone for aurora app notifications or driving out of the city to escape the competing light pollution — you’re in luck! The University of Calgary’s AuroraMAX camera has launched just in time for what’s expected to be an exciting northern lights season.
The AuroraMAX program, led by Professors Eric Donovan and Emma Spanswick in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary, is not only an aurora observatory but also a vital outreach initiative aimed at raising public awareness of the beauty, science and importance of auroras. AuroraMax is supported by the Canadian Space Agency, Astronomy North and the City of Yellowknife.
The AuroraMax camera sends a real-time live stream of the aurora from Yellowknife, N.W.T. Yellowknife is an ideal location for the ground camera as it is easier to observe the aurora further north or closer to the poles. Imagine a magnet connecting the North and South Poles through the Earth’s core. The strength of the magnetic field will be strongest at the two poles or ends of the magnet. This magnet creates a bulging magnetosphere enveloping Earth. Most of the charged particles that travel from the Sun to the Earth are deflected by this magnetosphere but some get through and are accelerated towards the poles. Here, they interact with oxygen and nitrogen, which release photons that manifest as the rich colours of the aurora. Oxygen is responsible for the red and green colours, while nitrogen is responsible for the blue and deep red hues.
This season is predicted to be bright and beautiful because we are heading towards a solar maximum. The solar maximum is an exciting period of the 11-year solar cycle, characterized by heightened solar activity. During the solar maximum, an increased presence of sunspots emerges, signifying the locations of the outward extensions of the Sun’s magnetic field. This bulging leads to the release of plasma or solar wind, predominantly composed of ionized hydrogen. These charged particles interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, fueling the auroras we see. The solar maximum will give Calgarians a greater chance of seeing the aurora with their own eyes.
In the 17th century, the famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei named the northern lights after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. Galilei was inspired by their incorrect belief that auroras were produced by sunlight reflected from the atmosphere. Despite the inaccurate theory, the name still fits appropriately today, echoing the present understanding that the solar wind fuels the aurora.
Studying the aurora holds great significance in today’s world. The aurora allows us to understand the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, allowing scientists to predict space weather. Canadian research will help provide a clearer understanding of the magnetosphere, which shields us from most of the Sun’s radiation. This shield’s strength is astonishing as the solar wind bombards Earth at a speed of 72 million kilometres an hour.
In the future, the hope is to add more cameras across Canada to the AuroraMax program. This will provide real-time information and alert Canadians when they might be able to view the aurora from their location. If you don’t feel like venturing out of the city on these chilly Canadian nights to spot the lights, simply navigate to AuroraMax and enjoy the spectacle of the aurora right from the comfort of your home.