In Search of the Northern Lights

By Dorothy Barlow

As a birthday treat I was given a trip to see the northern lights. Off to Glasgow airport we went, checked in at the appropriate desk then over to the Holiday Inn for a short talk on the forth coming proceedings. The astronomer for the evening, Chris Linton was a very enthusiastic young man , who gave us an hours entertaining talk on what we were hopefully going to see and an explanation as to what causes these auroral phenomena.

Sunspots give off extra large bursts of charged particles of which some are hurtled towards the earth. The magnetic field of the earth manages to deflect a lot of these particles but some do make it down toward the earth's poles. These particles then react with the magnetic field lines to create the lovely coloured ribbons, curtains or streamers of aural activity.

So onto the plane - Airbus 320 ' with 250 other hopeful aurora gazers. We took our seats but with 3 people on each side of the plane it meant that we would have to keep changing seats so that everyone got a chance to see out of the window. (Why can't they make a clear roofed plane for such occasions!) We headed up north leaving the highly light polluted sky over Glasgow to 15,000 feet where the stars started to shimmer in the black sky. The captain had very kindly allowed the cabin lights to be extinguished and also the navigational lights so that we could gain our night vision. After numerous glimpses out of the window, with not very much to see, the captain informed us that he could see the Northern Lights. We were just north of the Shetlands at around 61degrees N ..

There was great activity in the plane with people setting up their camcorders, activating their motor drives and clicking away with their digital cameras. We had been warned NOT to use flash as this would destroy our night vision . There in the distance a faint shimmer of pale green cloud was materialising, Chris informed us that indeed this was the Northern Lights and with a bit of luck it would get brighter. The plane then flew from west to east, then after a while turned back east to west for many runs so that both sides of the aircraft managed to get a good view.

At its best the Aura cloud stretched from west to east in a northerly arc, the bottom of the pale green cloud had a distinct edge to it and rose quite a distance. In a few areas you could make out faint columns of movement forming a slight curtain effect, but unfortunately nothing more came of it. No other colours could be seen and on occasions the middle of the cloud seemed to disperse causing the top of the aurora to be detached from the bottom edge, a few hazy wisps of stars could be seen through it.

When not facing north we could see the lovely constellations of Orion, Cassiopeia and Taurus along with others of course, but because there were so many more stars to see it was quite difficult to recognise the familiar fewer stars normally seen from our light polluted home town. We could also see Jupiter and Saturn but only if you managed to contort yourself to see through the narrow window.

Having been in the air for over 2 hours, which indeed did not seem that long at all. We headed off back south from where we had set off, into the orange glow of habitation. Although the vaporous phenomena did not quite match the expectation, it was still indeed a wonderful sight to see and will be a flight to remember for a long time.