From: Kelly Greig, Guest Author
Published March 29, 2011 01:48 PM

The Greatest Light Show on Earth: Northern Lights on display on world's stage

Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed them to be giant spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit of Alaska considered them incarnations of the seals, salmon and deer they hunted. The Romans named the Aurora Borealis after Aurora, the goddess of dawn. For centuries the Northern Lights have entranced civilizations with their beauty. That contiunes today as the AuroraMax project is giving people around the world the opportunity to see the lights live.

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The project, spearheaded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the University of Calgary and a group called Astronomy North, is designed to showcase Canada's unique view of the lights. Two cameras are set up around Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to capture the Aurora Borealis. The images are streamed on the CSA website live and in colour. AuroraMax was launched in September, but the prime time for viewing lights is between December and March.

The AuroraMax project launched as the sun's activity is on the rise. Every 11 years the sun becomes more active. The high point is known as solar maximum and is expected to occur in 2013. This means that the Auroras will be more dynamic with more and quicker movements.

"As the sun becomes more active the solar wind driver becomes more structured and dynamic, and the Aurora becomes more dramatic. The sun has been ridiculously quiet the last five years. So as we approach solar maximum the Aurora will get more interesting," added Eric Donovan, lead physicist for AuroraMax.

Donovan's role is to maintain the cameras and study the data of the changes in the Aurora. The camera that the project uses is actually a consumer based single lens reflex (SLR) camera. The difference is that the researchers have improved the optics of the camera, making the image much more defined at such a large distance.

"You're watching the interaction of space stuff with the Earth and you're watching it on a grand scale and you’re seeing on a very simple technology," said Donovan.

Taking a picture of the night sky with this simple technology can be difficult. Often, cameras do not have the capabilities to read such a small amount of light at such a great distance. The camera sits on a tripod surrounded by a dome, which is heated warmer than the snow but cooler than freezing so that any possible build up is evaporated. The camera's shutter stays open for five seconds then is closed for the sixth. This way, the light from the aurora has enough time to enter the camera but problems can occur when the Aurora is moving very quickly which can create a blur. "Eventually you get to the golden stuff," Donovan says of the perfect Auroral conditions; slow and bright.

"We wanted to show something to the public that is jaw-dropping," said Ruth Ann Chicoine, the CSA's national project manager. "The University of Calgary produced for us the most sophisticated camera that we know of in North America for the Aurora Max project."

Beyond the beauty Donovan sees a more functional use for the AuroraMax. "We could show people, you know that there is a phenomenal Auroral display happening right now, so if you want to see it, head out."

He said that various news and weather organizations such as The Weather Network and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have shown interest in having the 'space weather' as part of their programming.

People have been fascinated and awed by the lights for centuries and today it is easier than ever. For Chicoine, it is the opportunity to see the night sky like never before and admire a unique phenomenon. "It's the greatest light show on Earth and we're hoping that people will be awed and inspired by the beauty of science."

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