Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, Alaska

Newspaper Articles - 2003

 Chasing the aurora
Northern lights seekers take advantage of solar activity and clear winter nights
Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003
By ED SCHOENFELD for Juneau Empire

"It was just amazing," said Orelove, a Juneau stargazer and Marie Drake Planetarium volunteer. "Pictures do not do it justice because it does completely fill the whole sky. You have to turn your head to see the show."

When the skies are clear and conditions are right, Orelove and hundreds of others head out into the cold, often windy night in search of the aurora borealis.

They gather along roadsides, on frozen muskeg bogs and on wave-washed beaches away from urban lights to watch the magnetically driven illuminations form lines and curtains that wave and dance across the sky.

But the time for watching the aurora, at least in Juneau, is growing short. We're on the down side of an 11-year cycle of the sunspots and solar flares that power the lights.

"It's relatively quiet right now," said Charles Deehr, an auroral forecaster at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

"We're expecting them to fall off considerably as the solar activity falls off at the end of 2003," said Deehr. "This spring should be a good time to see the aurora, especially in the new moon periods in February, March and April."

The lights we call the aurora borealis are caused when solar wind, boosted by sunspots and flares, interacts with the Earth's magnetic field to charge up atoms and molecules in upper atmosphere. Starting 50 or more miles above the surface, the lights form a ring around the north - and the south, where it's called aurora australis.

Web links

For more on the aurora, check out these Web sites:

• University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, including the daily aurora forecast.

• Aurora for kids

• Auroral picture gallery, a private collection assembled in Fairbanks

• Mid-latitude aurora-watch, a Boulder, Colo.,-based site including a photo how-to section.

• Michigan Tech aurora page

The aurora is going just about all the time, somewhere, but only can be seen when clouds don't block the sky, competing light from the sun, the moon and human-made illumination is at a minimum and the atmospheric interaction is intense.

Scientists predict auroral activity by monitoring the sun's surface.

"A solar event will occur and we have about three days to get ready for it. It takes about that long for the shock wave to reach the Earth," said Deehr. "We had the first flares on the 20th, the first ones for a month. Previously during this cycle of sunspot activity we were having one ever three days. Now it's a month so it's definitely falling off."

Juneau residents most often see a green or yellow-green aurora, produced by oxygen atoms at roughly 60 miles up. According to Neal Brown, senior consultant at the Geophysical Institute, rarer red auroras come from oxygen atoms as high as 200 miles above the earth's surface. Ionized nitrogen molecules produce blue light while neutral nitrogen molecules create purplish-red lower borders and ripple edges, according to Brown's Web site.

The colors of the lights

Auroras are similar to color television images. In the picture tube, a beam of electrons controlled by electric and magnetic fields strikes the screen, making it glow in colors that vary with the screen's phosphor. Auroral color depends on the type of atoms and molecules struck by the energetic particles, particularly electrons, that rain down along earth's magnetic field lines in the discharge process. Each atmospheric gas glows with a specific color, depending on whether it is ionized or neutral, and on the energy of the particle hitting the atoms and air molecules.

The brightest and most common auroral color, a brilliant yellow-green, is produced by oxygen atoms at roughly 60 miles altitude. High-altitude oxygen atoms (about 200 miles) produce rare, all-red auroras. Ionized nitrogen molecules produce blue light; neutral nitrogen molecules create purplish-red lower borders and ripple edges.

- from "The Aurora Explained," by Neal Brown

Many northern light chasers turn to the Internet to know when to go out looking. A popular site is the Geophysical Institute's aurora forecast Web page, which includes a map showing where the lights are most likely to be seen overhead and on the horizon.

The forecast showed Juneau in, or at the southern edge, of the horizon visibility area for most of the past two weeks. Saturday's forecast, however, showed the area shrinking, with Juneau left outside the likely viewing area.

When the prospects are good, Juneau aurora-watcher Orelove lives downtown, where mountains and city lights can diminish the view.

"I go across the bridge to Douglas and Sandy Beach and look back over Mount Roberts," he said.

Steve Kocsis, another planetarium volunteer, said last week's clear skies and good forecast sent him outside.

"I live in the Valley so usually I view them from the glacier visitor center bus parking lot," he said.

Hiker and kayaker Larry Musarra often spots the aurora out the window of his North Douglas home. Then he grabs his camera and heads to a level stretch a short distance up the road to Eaglecrest that offers a broad, unobstructed view.

"It's a nice east-west horizon that gives you a really good shot to the north," he said. "The whole sky from all the way up to Tee Harbor and down to the Taku, it's pretty well lit up."

Outdoorsman and Trail Mix director James King likes to check out the lights from Eagle Beach.

"If the tide isn't high you can walk out on the beach and watch. It's really fantastic," he said. "The challenge is when the northern lights are out it's usually cold and windy."

While Juneau still has a few months of potentially good auroral activity, the decline in sunspots and solar flares will lower the number of viewing opportunities over the next few years. Those looking for overhead light shows might consider a trip north, said Deehr.

"If you want to see the northern lights, you should come to Fairbanks during March in the new moon," he said. "You're pretty much guaranteed to see the aurora."

Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at [email protected]

June 13 - Juneau Empire

Local groups invited to help with tide gauge

"What is the elevation of Juneau?" This is a frequently-asked question by Juneau visitors that will be easily answered with the construction of the Juneau Community Tide Gauge.

The Juneau Community Tide Gauge Project plans to use the natural tidal action of moving the Marine Park floating dock up and down to point to the tide level which will be identified on the dock pilings. Local organizations and school classes are being invited to paint each of the foot level numbers on the tide gauge.

The Juneau Tide Gauge Project consists of three parts. First, the two main pilings at the floating dock will be painted with numbers and other markings to represent the tide level in feet. Second, a large arrow will be placed on top of the floating ramp to point to the tide markings on the pilings. And third, a small sign will be added to the Marine Park dock railing describing the Juneau Tide Gauge Project. The sign will contain general information about tides and include the current tide tables. The sign will also identify the local organizations who painted each of the numbers.

The Juneau Tide Gauge will be informative, scientific and fun. It should be a complimentary addition to the improvements at Marine Park. To get more information, contact Michael Orelove at 586-3034.

Touring the solar system on foot

March 09, 2003
By Michael Orelove for the Juneau Empire

Taking a tour of the solar system is as easy as taking a walk.  At Twin Lakes, the one-mile paved walking trail has been painted with the sun and the nine planets, incorporating their relative size and relative distance apart.

The Juneau Community Planet Walk project involved school classes and volunteers from the Marie Drake Planetarium and other organizations.

Three of its paintings contain pieces of the heavenly bodies represented on the walk. So when you are stepping on the planet Mars, you are actually stepping on a little of the real Mars. Your "one small step ..." on the moon is on part of the real moon. And the asteroid belt contains part of a real asteroid.

The size scale on the planet walk has a 52-foot diameter sun; Jupiter is 5 feet 4.1 inches in diameter; Earth is 5.7 inches; and Pluto is 1 inch. The distance scale has Mercury 52 feet from the sun; Venus, 97 feet; Earth, 134 feet; and Pluto, a mile from the sun.

My niece Eden Orelove was the project assistant and did the initial trail measurements. She calculated the planets' relative size and distance along the trail.

"Different scales were used for the relative distance and relative size," she said. "If we used the same scale for both size and distance, Pluto would be 42 miles away."

Local school classes and volunteer organizations were invited to paint the sun and each of the planets.

The completed project is both an astronomy lesson and a work of art, teaching astronomy in a fun way.

Steve Cosgrove, the chief painter on the project, painted the sun complete with solar flares and corona loops.

"The sun is very dynamic and I wanted to show as much activity as possible," he said.

Earth's moon was painted by 2-year-old Hannah Turlove. At the distance scale, the moon is 4.2 inches from the Earth. At the size scale, the moon's diameter on the trail is 1.6 inches.

The moon was painted with pieces of the real moon. The paint was mixed with pieces from the Dar al Gani 400 meteorite obtained from Bethany Sciences - the Universe Collection. This was the third lunar meteorite found outside of Antarctica and was recovered in the Libyan part of the Sahara Desert in March 1998.

Mars is the only planet on the walk that is painted red. It was painted with pieces from a stone meteorite that fell near the village of Zagami in the Katsina Province in Nigeria in 1964. It is a very young volcanic rock and contains trapped gases in the same percentages as the material tested by the Viking probe in 1976 and the 1997 Pathfinder mission.

In addition to the sun and the planets, there is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The belt, painted to look like a man's belt, was painted with pieces of the meteorite that created Meteor Crater in Arizona, hit about 30,000 years ago, leaving a crater 4,000 feet across and 600 feet deep. Upon impact, a meteorite is believed to have vaporized and fragments were thrown as far as 11 miles.

At each planet location, there is a sign painted on the sidewalk that states the name of the planet, the distance to the sun in miles, and the diameter of the planet in miles.

Each planet has a north and south pole marker, indicating the tilt of the axis.

Rings were added to the four planets that have rings. A red spot was added to Jupiter, representing the Great Red Spot storm on the planet.

At the beginning of the trail there is a sign that identifies the project and provides additional astronomical information and the names of the groups that painted each of the planets.

The vastness of space starts to become apparent after the planet Mars, as you continue your journey to the outer planets.

We have sent many spacecraft to the near planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars), only a few spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn, only one to Uranus and Neptune, and none to Pluto. The walking tour of the solar system helps show the vastness of space and helps in understanding the difficulties in space exploration. The planet walk ends at Pluto which is 3.6 billion miles from the sun - one mile from the sun on the trail.

The Juneau Community Planet Walk is an interactive experience. Just by taking a walk, one learns the vastness of space - and our place in the universe.

I was invited to contribute to this column, which usually is about birds, so I will close by saying that I often see birds during my walk through the solar system.

Michael Orelove is an amateur astronomer and volunteer at Marie Drake Planetarium.