The aurora borealis on air from Greenland

An expedition to observe the aurora borealis from the South of Greenland, coinciding with the increase of the solar activity, will take place at the end of August. Named Shelios 2012, the expedition is promoted by the scientific-cultural association Shelios and is coordinated by its president Miquel Serra-Ricart, astronomer of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and member of the GLORIA Project. A daily broadcast from the surroundings of the Qaleraliq glacier will be available on the web.

Year 2012: Increase in solar activity

In the upper panel, solar activity plot (sunspot number against time). The first maximum corresponds to the last solar maximum (during the end of 2001); predictions indicate that the next maximum will occur in the middle of 2013. In the lower panel, Solar activity during the last 100 years (number of sunspots on the surface of the Sun against time).

According to latest predictions, the Sun will start its 24th period of solar maxima in the middle of 2013. Solar activity is defined by the number of sunspots detected on the surface of the Sun. As we approach the maximum, the number of sunspots increases, as shown in the upper panel.

From the statistics of the last 200 years it is known that the solar maxima (maximum of sunspots) follow a cycle of approximately 11 years (see lower panel).

One of the consequences of the solar maxima is that the Sun increases the emission of very energetic elementary particles (solar wind) in what is called solar storms. The main effects the solar maxima have on Earth are:

  1. Interference problems in communications networks (terrestrial and satellites);
  2. Possible problems with electricity supply due to the massive arrival of electrons at the terrestrial surface;
  3. Possible effects on the terrestrial climate;
  4. Increase in frequency and luminosity of polar auroras.

In the 1989 solar maximum, and during intense solar storms, several cities in the north of the United States and Canada had serious problems with electricity supply. Several satellites also suffered temporary anomalies in the course of these storms. The relation between solar activity and terrestrial climate has been a subject of debate in the last few years. There are indications that suggest that Earth has cooled down during the solar activity minima. Moreover, a prolonged solar minimum occurred between the years 1645 and 1715 (the Maunder minimum, see below) and is thought to have provoked a small ice age, with its effects manifested in Northern Europe.

Solar activity during the last 400 years (number of sunspots on the surface of the Sun against time)

During the solar maxima the intensity of the solar wind increases, leading to an increase of flux of elementary particles arriving at Earth. These particles are directed towards the magnetic poles where they interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the aurora borealis (Northern hemisphere) and the aurora australis (Southern hemisphere). The best zone to observe the aurora borealis is in a circle around the magnetic North Pole (between 60 and 70 degrees North). The magnetic pole does not coincide with the geographic North Pole and moves over time. It is currently located off the coast of the Canadian island of Ellef Ringnes, meaning that southern Greenland is well-placed to view the aurorae.

The Auroras

Aurora Borealis observed in late August of 2011 from the town of Quasiarsuk. The image was taken in Shelios 2011 (see shelios.com/sh2011) expedition (D. Padrón-starryearth.com)

This wonderful celestial spectacle takes place when very energetic particles from the Sun reach the Earth’s atmosphere via the solar wind. The entrance of these particles is governed by the Earth’s magnetic field and, therefore, they only can penetrate through the atmosphere at the North Pole (aurora borealis) and the South Pole (aurora australis). The auroras consist of luminous curtains, which change quickly and have several tones. The light emission takes place in the lower atmosphere (at altitudes between 100 and 400 km) and is a consequence of the collision of the solar wind (essentially electrons) with atoms of oxygen (greenish tones) or nitrogen molecules (reddish tones).

Expedition Location

The dark circle indicates where the observations and broadcastings will take place

The Shelios 2012 expedition is promoted by the scientific-cultural association Shelios and is coordinated by its president Dr. Miquel Serra-Ricart, Astronomer of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands. The main objective of the expedition will be the observation of the aurora borealis from the South of Greenland, coinciding with the increase of the solar activity. More information available at shelios.com.

Broadcasting

There will be a daily broadcast between 24 and 28 August 2012 from the surroundings of the Qaleraliq glacier (longitude=46.6791W; latitude=60.9896N) located in the south of Greenland (see Fig. 5 & 6). The broadcasts will be between 00:30 to 1:30 UT (22:30 – 23:30 local time of the previous day in Greenland, 2:30-3:30 CET; where UT means Universal Time and CET Central European Time). The event broadcast will be performed at three levels:

  1. 1) Live Connections (stream1). Five live connections lasting 50 minutes in total from 23 to 27 August.
    Every night 10 minutes01:00−01:10 UT (23:00 – 23:10 local time of the previous day in Greenland, 03:00−03:10 CET).
    M. Serra-Ricart (spanish) & Vanessa Stroud (English) will explain astronomical concepts related with auroras and solar activity and can be watched on the GLORIA live website live.gloria-project.eu and the main collaborator sky-live.tv
  2. One-Minute Time-Lapse. Every night during one hour and every minute an image of the starry night will be updated to keep the portal of the broadcast up-to-date. Two color Canon 5D-MarkII with identical lenses will be used (separated a minimum of 1km and a maximum of 50km). These images will be accesibles (URL) in order to do the proposed educational activity.
  3. Live sky images (stream2). Every night during one hour a B&W night camera point to the sky and will produce a video streaming of aurora movements.

Educational activity

An educational activity is proposed to carried out from aurora images.

Activity 1) Calculation of aurora altitude from images using color and parallax methods. Here

Links

During the broadcasts we will have daily information on the solar activity through the following nodes:

Download the PDF of the event