The aurora that was(n't)
So, what to make of last night's "possible" aurora appearance then...
The buzz had been palpable over the preceding few days. An M-class flare, closely followed by a larger X-class flare, heading our way?!? Social media was all a frenzy in anticipation. The news outlets were playing their part in spreading the word. Thousands of people across Northern Ireland were excited at the prospects of seeing their first proper aurora. On Friday night after work, a mass exodus towards the north coast seemed to take place. And what was the result of all the excitement, all the promise, all the miles travelled?
Or, not quite nothing...
Q1: Was there anything there?
Actually, yes. But very faintly. So faint that it was only visible on camera after long exposure shots and not at all to the naked eye. It turned out that the cloud and is that were causing concerns last night didn't spoil things entirely for us. But other things didn't really play ball.
Q2: Why couldn't I see it with the naked eye?
When the coronal mass ejection arrives, even if it is a big one, how far south it comes depends on how it interacts with the atmosphere. You may have come across the abbreviation 'bz' last night if you were on social media at all. For the aurora to show in Ireland, the bz needs to be negative (that means it's heading south). Last night it stayed mostly positive, hence the lack of obvious display.
But the main reason was the bright moon casting its bright light through the high levels of humidity in the atmosphere. By the time I was finished around 1.30 am, I could barely make out The Plough with the naked eye, never mind any very faint aurora.
This photo was taken at 9.05, in that short window of opportunity after night fell and before the moon rose. It was only the 8th shot I took last night out of 105 - and it was by far the best. You can see the colours, some of the vertical structures, and to cap it all off a shooting star made an appearance in the heart of the shot (a photo surely sponsored by Steven Spielberg?!)
Q3: Was it all a massive waste of time then?!?
It depends! It depends on how far you travelled (and how far home you had to travel afterwards!), how good the company was and how good the snacks were that you brought to enjoy.
Personally, I really enjoyed my time. The company was indeed good, the snacks were tasty, the buzz at Dunluce was great. It was cool to meet some of my band of faithful Facebook followers (thanks for the cup of tea Adele!) and to run a few impromptu "how to set you camera to photograph the aurora" workshops with various photographers who had turned up but weren't too sure of exactly what to do with their cameras. I bumped into friends old and new, looked at the craters on the moon through a friend's telescope, and altogether had a lovely wee night out.
I can say this, however: to be successful in the world of aurora chasing, you have to get used to plenty of nights like last night. Nights that promise the potential of much, but often deliver little in terms of auroral displays. Nights when you'll trek out many miles in hope and anticipation, sit and stand for hours in the cold, only to have to drive home empty handed (or should that be empty eyed?!?)
But don't give up. Be tenacious and resilient. Keep heading out on nights like this. Because if you do, then there will come that one night that may start off just like all those other disappointing nights, but that will end up putting on the most glorious of displays that will take your breath away and give you aurora stories to tell to anyone who will listen for years to come.
Q4: Is luck involved in seeing the aurora?
Undoubtedly. But the more you head out, the luckier you get!
Q5: Will there be a display tonight?
The only guarantee I can make is this - if you stay in, I guarantee you will see nothing! ;-)
In case last night made you think the whole aurora chasing thing isn't worth all the hassle, check out my Gallery of aurora photos I've taken from Northern Ireland. Keep heading out and you might see something like these some night!