Thanksgiving For Clear Skies

After a rather busy weekend down at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center for the Erik’s Main Event consumer electronics show, [what day are we on here?] we were unloading a large truck and as we looked up, there were the northern lights. While there are many avid aurora-watchers in the Yukon, I still find it surprising how many people have never seen the amazing northern lights. It seems irresponsible to reside in this great country and not see at least a few awesome aurora displays. It will change the way you look at the night sky.

I saw the lights again on the same weekend: with Thanksgiving dinner over [what night? Sunday, or is this the same night?], and everyone suffering from the turkey sleeping syndrome, it was time to say goodnight to family and friends. And what do I see as we are saying our farewells, but the northern lights.

I quickly grabbed my camera and tripod and headed to my rooftop observing site. This was the first week of October, and I needed was a light jacket. Is this global warming, or what? Usually in October, we are in the -5 to -10 Celsius range.

The light show started around 11 p.m. and continued to around midnight. It started slow and was moving all over the sky. In the clear patches of the night skies, the stars were pinpoint sharp and very detailed.

After taking 100 pictures or so with my trusty Canon camera, it was time to head indoors as the aurora show was over. Checking the website, I found out that a coronal mass ejection had hit Earth’s magnetic field on October 8. The resulting aurora display was seen as far south as Kansas, Utah, and California. And yes, it is rare for the northern lights to reach that far south.

Just to make Thanksgiving Monday night all the more interesting, we also had the Draconid meteor shower.

Meteor showers happen when Earth is passing through a stream of dust and debris left from comets. In this case, the dust and debris was from comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. The meteor shower’s source (also known as the radiant point, meaning the spot in the sky from which the meteors appear to originate) was the constellation of Draco. We were expecting about 10 slow-moving meteors every hour to appear near the celestial pole.

During an average meteor shower, I will take around 1,250 shots, and out of these there will be about half a dozen pictures with meteors captured. Now if I could capture the northern lights, and a meteor in the same shot, what a bonus! The weather was supposed to be clear with temperatures around zero— the perfect conditions.

Tuesday Night’s Observing Report

So this is what really happened [In the previous paragraph, it’s Thanksgiving Monday. How do we get to Tuesday here?]. By 10 p.m., the weather was still mostly cloudy, and the website said there had been a meteor storm that was now starting to subside.

Up the ladder to the rooftop, and my worst fears were confirmed—clouds in every direction. What caught my eye, however, was the northern lights illuminating the clouds, and Jupiter off on the distant horizon. Since I was up on the roof already, I decided I might as well wait and see if the clouds would clear.

Within an hour, the clouds had mostly dissipated, and there was that familiar green glowing arc of aurora to the north. While watching Orion rise off the horizon of Grey Mountain, I saw my first Draconid meteor. It was exactly like they said—large, slow-burning, and wow, was it bright!

While I was watching this awesome meteor, the aurora had started a small show on the far horizon. The previous night, the aurora show was over in an hour or so, but not this night! The lights were active for six hours. Curtains and pillars of light, cascaded in huge sheets across bands of aurora. There were excellent colour ranges as well, with plenty of purple and dark green on display.

The lights would be active, and then would quiet down but never totally subsided. There was always some aurora in the sky at all times. Then, at about 2:30 in the morning, an intense outburst produced some absolutely incredible aurora. It only lasted for twenty minutes, but it made for some amazing pictures.

While all this was going on, Jupiter and the Pleadies Star Cluster moved higher in the sky, with Orion rising above the shoulder of Grey Mountain. As the morning hours wore on, the crescent moon rose from the horizon and looked most impressive through binoculars, with the tree line silhouetted. A short while after that, Venus came to join the party, making it a full sky, with Venus, the crescent moon, Jupiter, and the Pleadies Star Cluster in an arc.

By the way, I only saw six meteors, but on the flip side, I came home with plenty of great pictures. What an amazing night indeed it was under those magical Yukon night skies.

There’s still plenty to see overhead this October, so head outside on a clear autumn night and see what the incredible night sky has to offer.

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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