Chasing the Aurora Australis in the Canberra & Snowy Mountains areas


Apart from the moon phase and the all important question of weather, my decisions to go and chase the Aurora Australis from my home in the southern outskirts of Canberra are heavily data driven. I subscribe to alerts from the helpful website Spaceweather.com. When I receive an alert, I then monitor the Canberra magnetometer from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website which indicates disturbance to our local magnetic field by solar activity. I look for ascending readings. In addition, I monitor closely the solar gauges from the DSCOVR and ACE space probes available on Spaceweather.com. I look for heightened solar wind speeds and other parameters in the solar wind such as its magnetic direction and density. Certain solar features on the Sun such as coronal holes may persist several months an I have successfully photographed auroral displays by anticipating the next rotation of the feature by adding 27 days.


I cover the principles of aurora forecasting in my Introduction to Night Sky Photography and Aurora forecasting course and provide detailed notes on my approach.


Now is the time to learn about aurora forecasting as solar activity picks up after solar minimum!

Cooma area, 20 April 2018


Heightened solar activity indicated by escalating readings on the Canberra magnetometer and solar wind readings led to the hasty decision to try and capture photographs of the aurora just to the south of where I live. fortunately a friend had given me the handy tip that there were bushfires in the Adaminaby area. This later helped inform a last minute decision to move to another site which I thought would be smoke free as my first choice was blanked by smoke from the fires.


After about 9o minutes in the car, I arrived at my chosen site full in the knowledge it provided a clear view south, with no light pollution to tarnish the image of the aurora. I hastily set up the camera in the middle of the road and obtained the first image in the sequence below. My jaw nearly dropped to the ground, as I had never seen a display like it in mainland Australia.

Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory, 5 August 2019


This series of shots were taken from a locality known as Legoland due to the massive granite tors found in the area. Sadly the area was ravaged by bushfires in January 2020 so access is not permitted until the area is deemed safe from damaged trees. The spot provides an elevated view south over the Orroral valley a significant site involved with the lunar landings. The site is also near Honeysuckle Creek near the former tracking station that was instrumental in picking up the first images taken from Apollo 11.


The scene was gently lit by a crescent moon and also brought out a bit of purple in the aurora. the two whitish clouds in the shots are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

Dodging the fog - Bredbo area 12 May 2021


On 12 May 2021, the solar wind readings surged in the late afternoon, including density levels at around 50 protons per second. The Bz readings were close to minus 20. On that information alone it was possible that the aurora would be visible at least in camera. The only question was would this activity hold and could we find clear skies with some fog persistently blowing into the Canberra area from the north. Fried David Marriott and I drove down past Williamsdale and we very nearly turned around but for some reason we decided to press on. We reached clear skies just north of Bredbo and hastily set up our cameras. By this time fabulous shots were rolling in from further south in southern Victoria and Tasmania but apart from some fabulous looking air glow, there was no aurora (see the first photo). Within a couple of minutes of the first photo, suddenly bright red flames could be seen near the horizon under the two Magellanic Clouds (photo 2). From these I knew the aurora had started to be visible. This shot highlights the difference between airglow visually with the airglow being the more diffuse orange glow seen in the sky higher up and with the aurora the much more definite strong red colour closer to the horizon and constantly changing shape. The later shots how the extent of the aurora including some beams shortly after and taken over the next 90 minutes or so. We had to constantly move because the fog kept invading our space necessitating moving further away from the Bredbo River and to higher ground along the Jerangle Road.

Aurora Australis over Mt Tennant (Tharwa area) ACT 1 November 2021

i nearly missed this aurora!


I as out checking out a site for a future workshop with friend David Marriott and at around 9:30 pm I received a text from another friend in the UK that the CME from a X1 class solar flare appeared to have arrived.


We immediately checked the solar weather gauges again on our apps on our phones and we noticed that the speed of the solar wind has increased suddenly from about 380 km per second to around 430 km per second. The density of the solar wind (protons per cubic cm) had risen to about 15 and the Bz had dropped to around minus 6 and was forecast in about 50 minutes to descend to around -8. The Bt was around 12 all really good readings.


Rather than returning home, we decided to see if we could capture the aurora down in the Namadgi National Park. Before we left an area covered by mobile phone reception, we noticed the readings had really improved - Bz was around -10, speed up to around 454 km/s and density had climbed to about 17. These readings persisted but we saw no aurora in our images. The forecast was good and I suggested we head to a further site south in the park where there was a very good elevated view south to try and capture the aurora. Unfortunately the site was out of mobile phone coverage but I felt quietly excited that we would capture the aurora on our cameras given my understanding of the solar ind readings and predictions.


Alas the lady did not arrive and as it was getting late on a night before work for both of us we headed home trying another spot on the way home in case the aurora has started.


No such fortune. I dropped my friend off at his place and headed home, a bit disappointed. For some reason I decided to look at the Glendale app which is brilliant and noticed that reports from as far north as Albury, NSW had come in two minutes earlier that aurora was visible.


I reasoned that since I was only about 55 km north of Albury at my location in the southern part of Canberra and jumped in the car and drove don to near Tharwa where I obtained the images above. Unfortunately a fog rolled in obscuring the aurora so I drove to a couple of sites nearby but the southern sky was no longer visible.


The aurora was a satisfying out come and varied from a nice pink to deeper red in the images taken with my cameras. The setting were: suing a 14 mm Sigma Art lens set at f1.8, exposed for 10 seconds at ISO 2500 and a Sigma Art 24 mm lens set to f1.4 and exposed for 6 seconds at ISO 2500.


I wish everyone clear skies.


As auroral activity is likely to ramp up I ill be again running my aurora forecasting and photography field trips so you too can know the basic information and when to head out and try and photograph the southern lights.


Ian

Chasing the Aurora Australis between Wagga Wagga and Narrandera, New South Wales 4-5 November 2021

An opportunity not to be missed!


On the Thursday 4 November 2021, I had arranged to go and see my daughter who lives in Wagga Wagga, it was the first time I had seen her since June/July this year due to COVID restrictions and lockdowns


I was aware that the aurora forecast was amazing but due to heavy rain in the Canberra area and the weather forecast for Wagga Wagga which predicted lots of rain, it was hard to take the usual interest as it looked like our La Nina conditions were going to interfere with imaging the aurora.


When I arrived at my daughter's place at around 7:45 pm, I quickly looked at the gauges and the auroral oval was huge. I had also noticed driving the 275 km west that there had been some openings in the cloud with some blue sky but I did not know how large the ears of clear sky were. I decided to check the Australian Bureau of Meteorology satellite image of the cloud and much to my amazement noticed a large opening in the cloud about 40km to the west and extending out past Narrandera to the north west about 100 km away.


I jumped in the car and about 40 km west of Wagga the cloud became scattered. I stopped beside the Sturt Highway and shot off a few images at ISO 2500 for 15 seconds using my Sigma 24 mm lens set to f2.5. My back of camera view showed a strong purple colour behind and in the gaps of the clouds (image 1) The colour was wonderful.


I then proceeded further northwest to try and get a clear view to the south but a layer of cloud obscuring the lowest part of the horizon stubbornly persisted. I drove along a narrow dirt road and set a time-lapse up of two nice shaped gum trees, pinks and some organs could be seen in the back of the camera. When the images were processed I was amazed at the colours from the Aurora taken about 25 km east of Narrandera. It was my first aurora capture from north of the 35 degree south parallel - an amazing 34 degrees south.


The aurora was predicted to have been visible from the southern bit of Queensland (approx 28-29 degrees south) but I noticed the colours were slowly tapering off and it was evident that the north was going to see it this time.


Cloud constantly shifted and there were large areas of fog moving around, possibly as I was not too far from the Murrumbidgee River and there had been a lot of rain in the days beforehand.


However, I was happy with the results.

Incredibly, when I drove back the 90 km back to Wagga Wagga I was hit by a torrential rainstorm and had to slow right down as the Sturt Highway became flooded in parts. It was an epic night indeed, one I will long remember.


The Aurora Australis viewed from about 40 km north west of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales

The Aurora Australis viewed from 25 km south east of Narrandera, NSW

A selection of other shots of the Aurora Australis


This contains some selected shots of the Aurora Australis taken from near my home.

Tharwa, 27 April 2017

Williamsdale, 11 September 2015