There’s more fireworks than meets the eye if one looks beyond the Roman candles and sparklers of Independence Day and into some dazzling, mysterious lights of the night sky.
You might have to make a special trip to the arctic to see a couple stellar fireworks, and another can be dangerous to view, but you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of sky phenomenon called “Steve,” “Noctilucent Clouds” and “Sprites.”
Our celestial fireworks can’t leave out the auroras at the North and South Poles, a regular, dazzling sight to those in the Arctic regions. Actual particles of the Sun that interact with our magnetic field, aurora is sometimes seen in the mid-latitudes of America, but a familiar sky show for our Canadian neighbors.
In today’s cell-photo society, I’ve often remarked that where are all the UFO photos? Now that everyone has a camera within arm’s length on our phones we should be seeing UFOs all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a big proliferation of photos of Flying Saucers or Little Green Men. I share that observation because today’s easy-to-use, supersensitive digital cameras, several interesting night sky phenomena you’re not familiar with are being “discovered” and documented frequently.
I’m talking about the night lights similar to aurora called “Steve” and Noctilucent Clouds (NLCs). And there is a thunderstorm phenomenon called “Sprites” that people are documenting shooting up to the sky out of the top of storm clouds.
Meteors, the polar auroras and occasional comets are the most common objects seen in the nighttime since the dawn of man. Of course, meteors are tiny fragments of cosmic debris slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. Comets are icy interlopers millions of miles away whipping around the Sun to return to edge of the Solar System 10 billion miles away. Auroras are the rarified reaction of our Sun’s stellar winds that intermingle at the north and south poles with Earth’s magnetic field.
There is also the various arc, tangents and circles we see around the Sun and Moon from time to time, all created by super-cold crystals in Earth’s atmosphere. And there can be some unusual cloud formations occasionally seen in all kinds of weather—there are always surprises to those diligent about looking up.
A great website to keep up with what’s up—and give you a daily glimpse at our Sun’s surface and solar storms—is www.spaceweather.com. It is an invaluable resource to current aurora storms, sunspots and meteor showers—and keeps tabs on cosmic radiation, Near-Earth asteroids and lots more “space weather” affecting our human abode. Everyday there are dozens of new photos of the Sun, Moon and planets posted from amateur astronomers and sky watchers all around the world. And there are special galleries of aurora photos, not only beautiful but educational as to photo composition and technique as most images have exposure data.
If you make it to the website (and why wouldn’t you?), SpaceWeather.com has several links to serious tutorials about sky phenomenon, including a great section on daytime “sun pillars,” “sun dogs” and night time “lunar halos.”
Stargazers of all kinds enjoy following sky phenomenon on the Internet, and it is on the websites that news spreads quickly as posts of what’s happening overhead can rival the political and pop culture trends that dominate Facebook, Twitter, etc. A rare photo of a “Steve” trail of eerie light or a fence row of “Red Sprites” erupting from a thunderstorm like Roman candles can go viral among the astro-nerd community. What’s a “Steve” and “Red Sprites” you say?
Steve is a relative new phenomenon that is a stream of plasma light spanning the sky like a river. It was thought to a form of aurora different because they are spread around in the shape of curtains, rays or arcs, where Steve is linear and not as vibrant. Steve appears as a very narrow arc extending for hundreds or thousands of miles, aligned east-west across more than one-third of the sky. Steve generally lasts for 20 minutes to an hour. As of March 2018, Steve has only been spotted in the presence of an aurora.
Sprites may have been seen for centuries but left unrecorded until the recent digital camera boom. They are usually red and are come kind of eruption above thunderclouds, captured in rows of red sprays reaching far into space. Their cause is a mystery as a huge electrical discharge shoots a plasma spaceward, similar to a florescent tube.
Today’s digital cameras are a big factor in capturing sky phenomenon like never before. The fast speeds of camera sensitivity, called ISO, in the ranges of 2,000-10,000-plus were unheard of just 20 years ago when 400 ISO film was the norm and only 800, 1000, 1600 and 3200 ISO were the only “fast” film available. Today’s quick camera speed allows exposure of night scenes without blurring, and better control of telescope images of the Moon and planets.
So, photographing “Sprites” has become a sort of amateur photographer’s “Bucket List” of illusive images. The technique is to look high above thunderstorms for the red flashes upward like fireworks. Behind high in a mountain looking down on a storm, or in flat terrain like America’s Great Plains are ideal situations to watch the action of a thunderstorm and wait—safely and with regard to your photo equipment’s weather worthiness.
Another rare sky sight that has become popular to look for are the NLCs, a night cloud that are truly a puzzling phenomenon and confined to the arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Described as “blue, electric tendrils slithering across the night,” these noctilucent clouds might be dust of burned meteorites, or maybe some kind of cosmic dust that permeates the Solar System. NLCs are thought to be seasonal in the Summer when they are reflected 70-100 miles high over the North Pole. There are several atmospheric NASA satellites that monitoring NLCs, aurora and more.
Noctilucent Clouds, Steve, Red Sprites—all illusive sights, and true celestial fireworks. Heck, I’ve never seen any of the three, but I’ll keep looking up!