Time lapse: The Aurora

By Phil Plait | December 31, 2011 10:00 am

OK, fine. I’m too much of a sap to leave y’all at the end of the year with a floaty shark balloon. So instead, I’ll leave you with some astonishing beauty: Terje Sorgjerd’s time lapse animation "The Aurora":

Wow. Make sure it’s set to HD and make it full screen!

As devastating and haunting as the northern lights are, my eye kept being drawn to the stars themselves. I recognized some constellations, but their movement across the sky was just so odd: instead of heading up or down, many were going sideways, parallel with the horizon. I hadn’t read the video notes yet, so when I saw that, my first thought was, "Holy cow, how far north was he?!"

Turns out, really, really far. The video was shot at Kirkenes and Pas National Park in northern Norway — yes, northern Norway, around 70° north latitude. As an example, down here at more temperate latitudes, Vega gets pretty high in the sky, almost directly overhead. But that far north it doesn’t; in fact, that far north Vega never sets! It’s a circumpolar star, like Polaris itself. You can see that for yourself in the video: Vega is the bright star near the center of the frame starting at 21 seconds in. It’s in the video for about 10 seconds, and you can see it’s moving downward in a slow arc, but clearly won’t get anywhere near the horizon.

In the very next sequence you can see Orion right on the horizon, faded due to the Moon. But where I live, in Boulder, over the course of the night Orion rises on his side, arcs up to the south until he’s standing upright, then sets on his other side. In the video, though, he’s upright and slowly, slowly sinking at a shallow angle.

What a difference latitude makes! The aurorae are usually only visible from extreme northerly or southerly latitudes — though sometimes, after a big solar storm, they can be seen toward middle latitudes — so that’s an obvious difference. But the stars themselves tell the story of our round planet.

We live on a ball! And it spins through space, once a day, sweeping around a star in a period about 365.24 times that long, which itself circles the center of the Milky Way once in a period 220 million times longer than that, as it’s done only a score of times since its birth.

That’s quite the story. And the best part? It’s true.

Keep that in mind as we start our next turn around the Sun. Maybe it’ll help keep things in perspective.

Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (20)

  1. We live on a ball! And it spins through space, once a day, sweeping around a star in a period about 365.24 times that long, which itself circles the center of the Milky Way once in a period 220 million times longer than that, as it’s done only a score of times since its birth.

    Why am I reminded of a Monty Python song? :D

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWVshkVF0SY

    Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.

    R’amen!

  2. DrFlimmer

    Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.

    Amen! :)

  3. Chris P

    Looking at the planisphere I got for christmas, Vega is always above the horizon where I am in the UK – it does brush the northern horizon once a day though.
    People don’t realise how far north Britain actually is; if you placed us 60° round the globe we’d be in Hudson Bay.

  4. STEVE
  5. wiggy

    Brilliant reminder that the old or new year is not ruled by luck, but by reason and reality.
    Happy New Rotation.

  6. IanR

    What I find most interesting is that there are four “layers” of movement: the ground, the stars, the aurorae and the occasional meteor. I love that!

  7. Ganzy

    Happy new year all!

    May all our stars shine brightly :D

  8. John Paradox

    DrFlimmer Says:
    December 31st, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.

    Amen! :)

    So Say We All!

    J/P=?

  9. Ray Bellis

    Vega is circumpolar even in London (but only just).

  10. Pete Jackson

    And if you lived on a planet around Vega and had a powerful enough telescope, you would always be able to see London!

  11. Tribeca Mike

    I raise my pint glass to you, Mr. Plait, with “stout” wishes for a most happy new year to come for you and yours, as well as to the readers of the best blog on the intertubes. Sláinte from New York City!

  12. @10. Ray Bellis : “Vega is circumpolar even in London (but only just).”

    Meanwhile it’s only just barely visible in Adelaide , South Australia, just scraping briefly over the horizon. (35 Degrees South latitude~wise if folks are wondering.)

    @11. Pete Jackson : December 31st, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    “And if you lived on a planet around Vega and had a powerful enough telescope, you would always be able to see London!”

    Well if you had one of the wormhole travelling alien devices from Carl Sagan’s Contact novel & movie (click on my name for youtube trailer) you could actually travel from London – or Japan – to Vega and beyond! Fa-aar beyond. ;-)

    @ 1. LarianLeQuella : “Why am I reminded of a Monty Python song?”

    Probably because it has similar words in the song as the BA used. Well, you did ask! ;-)

  13. 5..4..3.. 2 .. 1

    :-D 8)

    HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

    :-D 8)

    Raises a beer to Phil Plait, this blog and all aboard it and hopes everyone has a great 2012 as well.

    Great time lapse – superb – and a very good way to leave 2011 / enter 2012 with a bang here. :-)

    (Already New Years day here in Oz.)

    Thinking of Vega its interesting to note this A0 V star is facing us pole on – as Nick Lomb observes (click on my name for source) :

    The only bright star in the constellation [Lyra] is Vega. This is the fifth brightest star in the sky and one that astronomers use as a standard star with which to compare other stars. In recent times this role for the star has turned out to be somewhat awkward for it has been discovered that instead of being a slowly spinning star as had been thought, it is a fast spinning star viewed with its pole facing us. This spin distorts the star so that it is much broader at its equator than at its poles: through its poles its width is 2¼ times that of the Sun while at its equator it is 2¾ times wider than the Sun

    This may also explain why Vega looks seems so blue despite its Sirian spectral class – we’re seeing the hottest part of this distorted fast spinning star. :-)

  14. Gary Ansorge

    Wow! I can see why the Norse created the myth of the Rainbow Bridge to Asgard. Looking at these aurora on a cold, wintry night is a poetic inspiration.

    Gary 7

  15. J

    Anyone got a link to a non time lapse video of the aurora? I’ve never seen it and am curious what it looks like with its natural movement.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »