Aurora borealis searching at the Kielder Observatory

The Keilder Observatory at night © Kielder Observatory 2015On Saturday we ventured up a dusty road through a pine tree forest to the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, UK. In the heart of the largest protected dark sky area in Europe, the scandinavian-style wood-slatted observatory sits on a hill, as close as possible to the stars. Its only purpose is for people like us (i.e. not professional astronomers) to go and enjoy learning about the universe – to see the moon up close, Saturn with its rings of debris and ice, and distant galaxies.

Unfortunately it’s cloudy. So we don’t get to see any stars through the two research-grade telescopes or on the viewing platform.

Stars, planets and The Northern Lights

Luckily, we had the amazing Dan and Matt – the observatory’s astronomers – and volunteer Jim to inspire us in discovering what’s “out there” in Deep Space.

In a cosy, wood stove heated room, Dan helped us to think about the vastness of space and understand what the telescopes can help us see and discover. From the fact that the sun we see in the sky is about 8 minutes old (that’s how long it takes light to reach Earth from the sun) to what is in the centre of a galaxy (a black hole!).

Jim and Matt showed us around the telescopes. The telescopes are on a mount that can automatically the find stars and planets you want to see. Did you know a telescope’s main function is to collect as much light as possible and focus it down? It’s not about magnification until we get to the lens.

A welcome hot chocolate break around the outdoor fire gave us time to look across the lake below and the darkening (still cloudy) sky above before we were called in to learn how to see the aurora borealis.

I have wanted to see the ethereal aurora borealis ever since reading Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights trilogy. Apparently some native American Indian tribes believed that the aurora borealis lights would take messages back to the souls of their deceased loved ones, an idea I really love. However, Matt tells us they are actually solar flares spat out by the sun during storms. The sun’s plasma has so much energy it snaps away from the magnetic fields holding it close to the sun and is flung out into space, sometimes in the direction of the Earth. These flares take 2-3 days to reach our atmosphere, giving us time to plan where to see the aurora. Here are Matt’s tips:

How to see the aurora (without going to the Arctic circle!)

  1. Visit the Solar Dynamics Observatory website and look out for advanced warning of sun flares coming our way that are M or X class. The flares take 2-3 days to get to Earth so you have some time to sort out where to go to best see the aurora.
  2. Visit the Space Weather website which will give you an auroral oval showing where the best views are when the flares reach the Earth. They should be very near the red line.
  3. The Space Weather website will also give you a KP index which should be as high as possible. The KP index shows you how strong the sun storm is. The stronger it is, the better the aurora.
  4. Check the weather to see whether you will have a clear sky.
  5. Chose a dark location and a good Northern horizon (for example, on a peninsula looking out over the sea).
  6. Bring a chair, blankets, friends and hot drinks. If you’re super keen bring a camera with a wide lens and do 15-30 second exposures at ISO 800.
  7. Good luck!

Peace and awe

Despite the lack of real stars, I loved my time at the Kielder Observatory. Dan, Matt and Jim were welcoming and had the knack of explaining astronomy in an accessible way with infectious enthusiasm. It was humbling to be reminded of how small we are – with our problems and worries – in such a vast expanse of space crammed full of stars, nebula, comets, planets, moon, meteors, cosmic dust and mysterious dark matter.

Now I just need to plan my trip to see The Northern Lights and hope that next time I visit the Kielder Observatory there’s a clear sky.

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