Emily LakdawallaMar 24, 2009

Aurora Expedition: Aurorae and a volcano

Rosaly Lopes is sending us reports from The Planetary Society's member trip to view the Aurora Borealis in Alaska from March 19-25. Lopes is Lead Scientist for Geophysics and Planetary Geosciences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an investigation scientist on the Cassini Titan RADAR mapper team. Her main research interests concern volcanoes in the solar system, especially on Earth and Io.

Rosaly Lopes

March 22, 2009

We have been so busy that it has been hard to find time to write. We visited the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska here in Fairbanks. We were met by the director, Roger Smith, who gave us a very interesting lecture on the aurora, with amazing photos and animations that really helped to explain what goes on. We all hope to see something like that. Unfortunately, solar activity is very low at the moment, so it is very unlikely that we will see spectacular aurorae. Personally, I just want to see some auroral formation.

The real treat for me in the morning was the tour of the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) which is located in the same building. We saw the seismic data on Redoubt in real time, and it didn't seem to be doing much. Little did we know that the volcano would blow during the night.

Dr. Hansen conducted the tour. Later he and one of his graduate students talked to us about tsunamis. The funny thing for me was that I have a friend who works at AVO and I hadn't realized that I would be just outside his office during the tour. Since it was a Sunday and the volcano was quiet, Steve McNutt was not at work. He must have come into work just a few hours later, when the seismographs started showing that activity was imminent. They have a system at AVO in which a volcanologist is on duty at all times, and is called on his or her cell phone if seismic activity increases beyond a certain level.

During the afternoon we visited another wildlife research facility, this one run by the University of Alaska. He saw musk-ox, which are really big, somewhat comical animals. They look like buffalo to me, but they aren't. I'm not very knowledgeable about wild animals, so I can't tell the difference between an elk and a reindeer and a caribou. We learnt that reindeer and caribou are actually the same, except that reindeer are the more domesticated type. And I never knew that Santa's reindeer are all pregnant females (because they keep their antlers during the winter months). Now I'll never think of Rudolph the same way again.

Sometimes it's better not to know too much.

It was a real treat to see the Ice Festival, an outdoor park where they have gorgeous ice sculptures. It is an art festival, so people from all over the world compete making these amazing ice carvings. They also carve a playground for the kids, with ice slides and such. My friend Marie couldn't resist going down one of the ice slides. After dinner we departed with great hopes for aurora viewing. The weather was gorgeous, skies clear.

Local astronomers set up telescopes for us at Creamers' Field and, thanks to them, we had a warm little museum to hang out in while we waited for the northern lights to be switched on. We saw Venus and Saturn through their telescopes and also several other pretty sky sights, such as the Orion nebula. Finally, a faint green arc appeared. It was very nice to see, at least we saw something of an auroral formation. Dennis told us that this is pretty much the default during clear nights. The arc didn't break up into "curtains" but I was happy that we had seen at least that much.

We didn't know that Redoubt was having violent explosions while we watched the aurora. The last explosion occurred at about 5 am on Monday morning, as I found out from the volcanologists' network the following day.

March 23, 2009

The eruption of Redoubt was all over the papers and the news on TV. Now everybody seems to think that I'm going to go to the volcano, but I explained that this is NOT the type of volcano you go see up close. I got a message from Steve that he is very busy (of course) but we hope to meet up Wednesday night. I got one more bulletin just after noon: the ash column got very high (30,000 feet).

One consequence was that flights from Anchorage and Fairbanks were grounded. It is very dangerous for aircraft to fly through ash, there have been several cases when jets lost all their engines - luckily when the planes lost altitude and got out of the ash cloud, the pilots managed to re-start the engines. One such case happened during the last eruption of Redoubt in 1989-90. So, we may be stuck here if the volcano blows again in the next day or two. It would be really ironic if I ended up stuck in Alaska because of an eruption I can't go see.

We had another great day. Weather continues to be gorgeous. Some of us went to the Ice Theatre this morning to see an aurora slide show with music -- actually time lapse photography, which made it appear like you were seeing the aurora in real time. This afternoon we stopped to see the Trans-Alaska pipeline (impressive) and visited the Poker Flats rocket launch site.

Poker Flats is the world's only university-owned and operated rocket launch site, from where they launch sounding rockets to study the aurora. We went into the control room and saw that they still "push the button" rather than use a computer program. This is because you can hold a launch and re-start it more quickly if auroral conditions change.

We proceeded to the Lodge at Mt. Aurora, where we had a delicious salmon dinner. I gave a short talk about the Planetary Society and people were very interested. The lodge dog, golden retriever Daisy, seemed to like it as well. The lodge has a great facility for seeing aurorae: a ski lodge where we can stay warm, and just pop out when the lights really get going.

We see a faint green arc again. I'm jaded now and don't bother to go out in the cold (it is 0°F [-18°C] and getting lower) until it gets good. It's cozy inside the ski lodge and we have free hot chocolate. The last group left a bottle of Irish Cream liqueur, my favorite. This could be a good night.

The green arc is better than last night's. The temperature is also colder -- this always seem to be the way with astronomy. I'm writing this in real time, as I go in and out of the lodge. It is now good, only one color (pale green) but it is breaking up into curtains. This is the real thing.

March 24, 2009 (morning)

It is now the next morning (Tuesday). I put the computer away once the display started getting really good. It was amazing!!!! The arc broke up into several, and into curtains, and a funnel that got to be bright green. We stayed up there very late, I think it was 2 am when we left. Time no longer mattered! I went down to the lower lodge, which had lots of windows and no lights inside, so when I saw the display changed, I run outside, stayed until I felt frozen solid, then got back in to warm up. The temperature got to -10°F [-23°C] and there was some wind, so I don't even want to think what the chill factor was! It was worth it though.

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