On September 22, 2017, Martin Connors and his team were at the Athabasca University Observatory for an Alberta Robotic Telescope project workshop and as luck would have it, they were in for an explosive night.
Faint aurora covering the whole sky is not unusual in Athabasca (left picture), but scientists at the university’s Geospace Observatory were surprised to see such an aurora explode in front of their eyes. In less than a minute, the featureless dim glow formed “beads” in a glowing necklace across the sky. In two minutes the beads had formed into a bright curtain of light overhead (right picture). Eventually the whole sky filled with bright aurora in a spectacular display that lasted about half an hour.
Aurora from the Athabasca Observatory
The beads hold some clue to how auroras explode, going from a dim haze to brilliant dancing forms. The beads have been often photographed by automatic cameras in northern Canada and Alaska, but rarely have shown themselves to the huge array of instruments at Athabasca’s Observatory. The high resolution photos and videos will be able to be measured to unravel some of the scientific mysteries of the northern lights. Athabasca University’s Geospace Observatory is located in a dark corner of Athabasca County to allow studying very faint auroras. This aurora was so bright that it was even seen despite the light pollution in Edmonton, the nearest large city.
The world-class scientific instrumentation at AU’s Geospace Observatory was installed with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and in cooperation with leading institutions such as Nagoya University in Japan.
Athabasca University now has two auroral observatories, one on campus, and one in a much darker location in Athabasca County. Both were founded by Martin Connors, Professor of Physics and Space Science, with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and its provincial counterpart. Dr. Connors’ aurora research at Athabasca began in 1998 with detection of magnetic fields in Athabasca, and has since expanded to encompass detector sites across Canada as well as local facilities. The Athabascahe Athabasca University Geospace Observatory was recently featured in Earth & Space Science News.