Skyward by David H. Levy – June 2024

This entry is part 45 of 44 in the series Skyward by David Levy

For the last few nights I have been looking in one particular direction of the sky: the northeast. Over a period of four nights, I have noticed a faint glow in that direction. It wasn’t bright, certainly nothing about which to write home, but it was the aurora borealis. It is a direct message from the Sun to us, a cosmic hello to we the people here on Earth. I also was aware that this aurora was a direct result of a gigantic group of at least 60 sunspots that had been rowing across the surface of the Sun.

Sunspots seen on May 13, 2024. Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.

The Northern lights and I have been good friends since my first view of a small display, back in 1961 when I was just beginning my teenage years. I duly informed Louis Duchow, the person in charge of aurora reports at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Montreal Centre. “Did you write up a report on it?” he asked. When I answered in the negative, he said, “Then you really haven’t seen it.” It was a silly answer but there was a morsel of truth in it. I began filling out Aurora reports pretty religiously after that.

The night of July 8, 1966, was the night without a dusk. The Sun set, and as I watched the darkening sky, the sky just didn’t get dark. Instead, the post-sunset glow slowly shifted from the northwest to the north, and then just stayed there. The sky also gradually turned a bright green as the auroral glow grew brighter. Then the first bright ray appeared, and within an hour, rays were growing all over the sky. Two months later, a even better display lit up the whole sky from Montreal. I was waiting for a bus to go to the Observatory for their typical Saturday night meeting when I saw a giant coronal arc at the zenith of the sky. I just turned around and walked home to watch this mighty show.

Aurora Borealis from 2020. Credit: David Levy

Over the years I have seen other displays of the northern lights, some from the northeast, and several from my current home in southern Arizona. Possibly the nicest one took place from the great auroral arc around the Arctic circle. Our airplane took off from Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon territory, and the instant pur plane rose above the clouds the sky was covered with aurora.

The Northern Lights are best seen without any optical aid at all, without binoculars, without a telescope. When the display appears, just open your eyes and relish the sight. Next to a total eclipse of the Sun, about which I wrote last month, the aurora is one of Nature’s grandest spectacles.

The Aurora Borealis viewed from East Jordan, Michigan. Credit David Levy