50 Days to Totality Podcast

Looking Forward to the Great American Eclipse

Dr. Samuel Singer of Wyoming Stargazing discussed his public programs within Wyoming Stargazing and also the upcoming Solar Eclipse. The eclipse will be on August 21st and the town of Jackson is already booked to capacity for the occasion. We discussed the science behind the eclipse and why people are so excited to travel out to Jackson for this special event.

How to See the Northern Lights from Jackson Hole, Wyoming

The Myths

First let’s dispel some myths about the northern lights.

  • Northern lights can only be seen from Canada and Alaska (in North America).
    The northern lights (aka, aurora borealis) have been viewed as far south as Alabama and Arizona in recent years. In one of the strongest storms in recorded history, they were even seen in Hawaii. The strength of the northern lights (and thus how far south they’re visible) is dependent upon the strength of the impact of an incoming Coronal Mass Ejection. Put simply, the sun occasionally has reactions on its surface that send solar energy hurtling into space. If one of those outbursts happens to impact Earth, it causes a reaction in our magnetosphere. This reaction is the northern lights, and can appear colorful if strong enough (though cameras always pick up the color). So, the stronger the impact, the farther south the northern lights can be seen.

  • Northern lights are only visible in the winter.
    While the sun does have its own seasons, they have nothing to do with the seasons on Earth. Therefore, the previously mentioned eruptions are occurring throughout year. I personally have now seen the northern lights in every month here in Jackson Hole. In fact, both of these myths originated from essentially the same origin. Seeing the northern lights in northern Canada or Alaska is admittedly much easier. There are frequently much smaller reactions occurring in our magnetosphere that are much easier to see at those latitudes, and therefore much more reliable. The farther south you go from there, the harder the predictability. At the same time, since those areas also get 24 hours of daylight during the summer, you can’t see them at all in the summer, so you have to go in the winter since that’s the only time of year there’s enough darkness to see them. But where there’s night, there’s still a chance to see them.

How to Read the Northern Lights Forecast

On the right is a screenshot from a website that we frequently check, called SpaceWeatherLive. More specifically, it’s a screenshot from their Auroral Activity page. What this shows is six different readouts from NOAA about reactions that are occurring relating to the northern lights. (Note that this is only a screenshot and not live data.) While it can appear confusing and too much to understand at first, it’s actually really simple. For starters, I really only pay significant attention to two of the graphs.

The Kp-Index

Northern Lights Forecast

One of the most frequently checked graphs when looking for northern lights is the Kp-Index. In simple(r) terms, this measures the disruption of the horizontal distribution of the geomagnetic activity. It’s measured using an arbitrary scale from 0-9. A value of 0 means that even Fairbanks, Alaska would have difficulty in seeing the northern lights. 1-3 is most common, and that’s what is frequently seen in those northern latitudes of northern Canada and Alaska. A 4 would push them down into southern Canada, while a 5, in the right conditions, might just barely be visible on the northern horizon here in Jackson Hole. To see them well, we typically need at least a 6. If the Kp were to reach 7, it would be seen as far south as southern Utah and Colorado. The scale tops out at 9, and that’s when people in Mexico and Hawaii would be able to see them.
More information on the Kp-Index can be found here.

The Direction of the IMF (Bz)

While most people look at the Kp-Index to see a rough estimate of activity, it’s actually the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) that has the biggest effect on auroras. If the IMF is trending southward, that will allow the coronal mass ejection to have a more significant reaction with our magnetosphere. This is typically northward facing, with the occasional dip southward. However, if it trends southward consistently and has a negative value of at least -5 (the lower the better), then things are looking good. Here in Jackson Hole, we’d want those values to push below -10 to be sure we’re getting a good show. During a really good reaction, it will be around -15 or so.
More information on the Direction of the IMF can be found here.

Finding the Best Location

In Jackson Hole, your best bet is to head out to the Antelope Flats area for the large wide open views away from light pollution. Unfortunately, there is currently too much light pollution in Jackson to be able to see them with the naked eye, and possibly even with a camera, so heading north up to the flats is the best location. Likewise, the backside of the National Elk Refuge might also make for good viewing. For those of you in Wilson and Teton Village, the Moose-Wilson Road just inside the south entrance of Teton Park is also an ideal location. There’s not quite as much light pollution produced by Teton Village as Jackson, and the large meadows before the road turns to dirt is a large enough area to get a clear view to the north, with multiple pullouts in the area. Please respect private property and their driveways if you’re out there though.

Basic Camera Settings

If you’re interested in capturing the northern lights on your camera, you’ll absolutely need your camera on a tripod. Also, auto settings will not work. The settings you’ll want to aim for are as wide of an aperture as you can get (f/2.8 or lower, ideally). You’ll want your ISO somewhere around 3200 (depending on your camera’s capabilities). Your shutter speed will depend on the intensity of the auroras. If they’re very strong and clearly visible, you can set it to about six seconds or so. Anything more will blur the ribbons of the auroras. If they’re weaker and in the northern horizon, you’ll need a longer shutter speed to absorb the distant light, so 20 seconds would be good in that case. Last, make sure your lens is set to manual focus and set it for infinity (if possible). Otherwise, focus it on a point of light as far away as possible, then set it to manual focus so it doesn’t try to focus again.

Conclusion

You should now be all set to see and hopefully capture the northern lights! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

We’re kicking off a fun new monthly series of blog posts here on Wyoming Stargazing. This will be a monthly challenge to hone your astrophotography skills on a different deep-space target each month.

How to Find the Andromeda Galaxy

This month’s astrophotography target is the Andromeda Galaxy. Our nearest galactic neighbor can be found by looking north-northeast toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. At this time of year, after sunset, Cassiopeia is to the east of Polaris, the north star. It makes the distinct shape of an awkward looking ‘3’. Down from Cassiopeia and more eastward is the constellation of Andromeda. Three bright stars will form her bottom leg: Almaak (the foot); Mirach in the middle; and Alpheratz at the waist. From Mirach, you can jump up to her next leg at a fainter star. Then, hop up one more yet fainter star. To the right of the last star will be the Andromeda Galaxy, appearing to the naked eye as a fuzzy blob. If you look back at Cassiopeia, you’ll see the top three stars form an arrow that point directly to the galaxy.

Use whatever means you can to try to catch a shot of it: telescopes; astrophotography trackers; even just a camera on a tripod. When you have something you’re happy with us, share it with us on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll share the entries!

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor and is 2.2 million light years away. It is bigger than our own Milky Way Galaxy and is often seen with a much smaller "companion" galaxy.

How Color Temperature Affects Light Pollution

Recently, there’s been a popular move in many cities and towns to retrofit their lighting with LEDs. With cheaper energy use, it seems like a no brainer. What most local governments don’t realize, however, is that there are some serious drawbacks to LED lighting if the options are not properly researched.

A Quick Overview on Color Temperature

First, let’s take a quick look at how our eyes perceive color. Our eyes are made up of rods and cones. Cones are what perceive color in daylight, and rods are our night vision, mostly transmitting information in shades of black and white. (On a separate tangent, most people in urban areas never use their rod vision anymore, a side-effect that has disastrous health consequences.) Daylight on the other hand yields the entire visible spectrum to us. The visible spectrum itself is made up of longer and shorter wavelengths that our rods and cones decipher as different colors as light hits our retinas. All the colors blended together are interpreted as white. Longer wavelengths appear warmer (reds, oranges, yellows), but confusingly, have a lower value on the Kelvin scale, the standard for measuring color temperature (1500K, 2700K, etc.). Conversely, shorter wavelengths appear cooler to the eye (greens, blues, purples). These have a higher value on the Kelvin scale, ranging from 6,500K (which would be considered a warmer-looking HD screen) to 27,000K, a clear blue sky.

White LED Streetlight

Blue is the easiest to scatter not only in the atmosphere (hence blue skies and water), but also in our eyes. It’s therefore a bit harder to make out details in blue-rich light than it is in warmer-colored lights, which is where things get interesting.

The White LED

Due to the way LEDs (and fluorescent lights for that matter) are created, white is never actually an even blend of all the colors. In fact, to create a white-appearing light, it’s required to dramatically increase the shorter-wavelengths (i.e., blue). In normal daytime use, this isn’t much of a problem. Our eyes are already adjusted to the brightness of our surroundings, so the "white" appears perfectly natural. Once day gives way to night, however, a Pandora’s box is opened up by the white LED.

  • Uphill Battle Against Evolution

    During the millions of years of our evolution, there was never prolonged white, or especially blue, light after the sun went down. Having this bright blue light glaring down on citizens throughout the night can have serious consequences on the human body (among most other animals). There’s an increasing amount of evidence confirming this that comes out practically every year. As it was described to me by Dr. Travis Longcore, we’re conducting a massive public health experiment on huge portions of our population without any kind of research or safety precautions being implemented.

  • Increased Brightness

    What many people don’t realize is that at the same wattage, white is significantly brighter than a warmer-appearing color. In fact, at the same wattage output, a white LED light will put out more than eight times more brightness (and thus, light pollution) than a warmer-looking counterpart. The side effects of this are an increase in overall light pollution (even if pointed down), adverse effects to human and wildlife health, and a huge jump in light trespass.

  • Light Trespass

    Report, after report, after report confirms that residents don’t like having daylight at night. It’s not just having daylight overpowering the night. It’s also that this light is so powerful, that it spills into bedrooms and living rooms like never before. This leads to more disturbed sleep and general dissatisfaction with the neighborhood itself. One community was kind enough to listen to its citizens’ complaints and replace the white lights with warmer ones, something we’re working with the Town of Jackson on fixing.

  • Increased Glare

    The LED streetlights are designed in such a way that you can stand underneath them and not think it’s too bright. That’s because the lights are designed to emit light horizontally rather than downward. As a result, the light actually increases glare on the roads, and thus, distracts drivers by making it harder to see the road itself, along with anything else on the road. In addition to making the streets less safe for the general public, the elderly experience glare even worse since light scatters more easily in their eyes.

Solutions to White LEDs

Help is with our Fundraiser

Shielded Lighting

Wyoming Stargazing currently has an ongoing fundraiser to help spread this kind of education and awareness. Since we’re currently working with the town and county, a donation will also have an impact in deciding how they light public areas from this point forward. We need your help though in making sure we have the funding to continue our efforts. Head to this link to help us make our streets safer by applying a more night-friendly lighting.

Warmer-Appearing LED Streetlights

LED manufacturers have also been watching these scenarios play out. Thankfully, there are now streetlights that are 3000K, much safer and healthier than the blue-intensive 6000K lights that are being installed across the country. I personally wouldn’t mind seeing them go even lower on the Kelvin scale. Flagstaff, Arizona makes great use of both warm-colored LEDs, as well as low-pressure sodium. The Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition has an excellent series of charts showing the impact each type of light has on the sky. Based on their evidence, low pressure sodium is still the ideal choice for a streetlight, but is also a harder sell given the low-cost advantages of LED.

Shielding Lights

Adding a protective shield to ensure the light goes downward and not outward is often an easy fix. This helps the reduce the amount of light that is spreading outward, and thus, upward. Shielding also dramatically reduces glare making streets much safer for pedestrians and wildlife.

What Can You Do?

If you’re in the Jackson area, you can help us out in our fundraiser, or signup for our newsletter at the bottom of the site to get updates on our progress, as well as when we could use volunteers. Those of you elsewhere can write your local politicians letting them know your concerns for LED streetlights, while also offering them the alternatives with the reasons why they’re more appropriate. As mentioned, some places will listen to their citizens’ concerns. Plus, the more people that communicate with their local governments about the issue, the more education they’ll have, and the more pressure they’ll have to act appropriately.

Fundraising to Save Our Night Skies

We’ve just launched a brand new fundraiser to help us begin making a big impact on the light pollution in Jackson! If successful, we’ll be able to begin a series of case studies with local businesses in collaboration with Energy Conservation Works, another local nonprofit, to quantitatively measure the light emitted from various locations around the valley. We’ll also have the resources to begin a full scale educational campaign to bring more awareness to the general public about light pollution.

How It Works

There are a couple different ways you can help us reach our fundraising goals.

  1. You can make a monetary donation through the Crowdrise fundraising platform. They give at least 97% of funds raised to Wyoming Stargazing. Even if you can just afford $10 it helps us out.
  2. You can help us raise funds yourself by setting up a fundraising page on Crowdrise by clicking on this link, selecting the ‘JOIN THE TEAM’ or the ‘FUNDRAISE FOR THIS CAMPAIGN’ links near the bottom of the page that opens up, and sharing your fundraising page across all your social media outlets. If you do that you’ll be entered to win one of three fantastic prizes (including a free private stargazing program for you and 4 guests, an 8" Dobsonian telescope, and Wyoming Stargazing swag). These are all being offered for the fundraisers who raise the most money for Wyoming Stargazing.

Get your fundraising pages set up soon because Giving Tuesday, December 1st, is just around the corner!

What You Get Out of It

In addition to the amazing prizes above, by helping us out you’ll get the satisfaction of joining over 500 people who, over the last two years, have helped us offer 116 Free Public Astronomy Programs including stargazing, solar astronomy, and planetarium programs to over 4,300 people. Plus, your donation will be completely tax deductible.

Sky Quality Meter

What We Get Out of It

If all goes well, we’ll have 20 new Sky Quality Meters ($200/each) and 20 GPS units ($85/each) to measure sky brightness at accurate and precise locations. We’ll also have the funds to start printing brochures, fliers, and other educational materials to bring more widespread attention to the problems associated with light pollution and the benefits of alleviating it.

Visit our Save Our Night Skies page to find out more about why reducing light pollution is so important. If you already know all about this stuff and want to help us out please click one of the links below. Thanks!

Donate to Save Our Night Skies

Join the Fundraising Team to Save Our Night Skies