Guest post by Aurorasaurus Ambassador Jeremy Kuzub
This article is the first of three about how researchers and citizen scientists record and explore years of auroral activity using all-sky cameras, keograms, and software visualizations.
What if you could stand under the aurora-filled night sky and watch everything from horizon to horizon, all night, every night, for years on end. You would probably get a very good feel for aurora behaviour. You’d learn to understand the movements and patterns and ‘language’ of the light.
With this knowledge, you might see similar patterns in the aurora of other planets like Jupiter or Saturn and maybe even planets in other solar systems. The language of the aurora’s motion and light doesn’t stop with Earth. If you speak it, you speak part of the bigger language of space weather.
Of course, standing outside every night for years on end is not all that practical. Your eyes can’t even take in the whole sky at once – they are not sensitive enough, and most of the sky is always behind you. This is why researchers and citizen scientists use a special type of camera called an ‘all-sky camera’.All-sky cameras are designed to be the best possible aurora watchers. This means they must unblinkingly capture all of the sky at once. To do this, an all sky camera is fitted with a “fish-eye” lens that has a 180-degree field of view, wide enough to see the sky from horizon to horizon when pointed straight up. The camera system can be calibrated so that any part of the sky can be matched to a location above Earth. Here is is what a single frames looks like:
All-sky cameras take hundreds of photos each night that can be assembled into time-lapse movies which show the aurora motion in fast-forward, making a whole night of activity seem like a few minutes of a swirling colour.
To get the most out of these images, researchers synchronize them with other science instruments. If all the instrument data is played back at the same time, we can start to really understand the music of space weather. Let’s look at an example of data from a magnetometer (a very sensitive compass) synchronized with an all-sky camera located in Yellowknife, NWT. Can you spot the relationship between the burst of magnetic activity and the ‘substorm’ of auroral activity?
This was one of the first fundamental discoveries about the aurora–they are intimately linked with the changes in Earth’s magnetic field. The only force that can disturb Earth’s magnetic field in this way is the solar wind of charged particles from the sun. What you see is evidence that the sun and Earth are coupled by a complex interaction of space weather.
The Big Picture: All-Sky Camera Networks
When you are learning about the Earth and space weather, you have to think big. Thinking big means not just synchronizing your instruments to each other, but to many similar instruments over a very wide area. The first big project to explore the aurora across many countries was during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958. International researchers cooperated to install a network of more than one hundred all-sky cameras across Scandinavia, North America, and many other locations. Each camera could see nearly 500km in any direction, and their fields of view overlapped to create a global view of the Earth rotating under the auroral oval. Studying this global mosaic led to the discovery that auroral activity is synchronized across thousands of kilometers (see “The Development of the Auroral Substorm” by Syun-Ichi Akasofu) . This is evidence of powerful, rhythmic energy releases in Earth’s magnetosphere. Researchers named these build-ups and releases of energy ‘Auroral Substorms’. They were a message in the language of the aurora that all-sky cameras helped us find.
The original all-sky cameras were film based. Someone had to collect and develop the film, match up frames to those from other cameras and other instruments manually. It took a huge amount of manual work and dedication. Imagine what those researchers would think of today’s all sky camera networks like MIRACLE and THEMIS. They use far more sensitive digital imagers that can record the whole visible spectrum like a human eye, or filter wavelengths of auroral light emitted by specific kinds of particle interactions. With advanced custom software and data systems, the circular images from the cameras are automatically combined into mosaics that cover most of the auroral zone. Researchers and citizen scientists can review these nightly archives and match them up with other data from spacecraft, ground instruments and aurora chaser photos. There really is a bigger picture to assemble from all these data sources. Only when they all work together can we piece together the chain of events that powers and shapes the aurora.
Explore All sky Camera Video
As part of public science outreach, The University of Calgary’s Auroral Imaging Group maintains the AuroraMAX camera in Yellowknife, NWT, and the associated website in cooperation with Astronomy North and the Canadian Space Agency. This is an uncalibrated full-color all-sky camera that provides real-time images approximately every 5 seconds. The site also features a deep archive of nightly time-lapse videos. For example, here is the night of March 1, 2019 which had active aurora conditions and a clear sky.
Inspired by the AuroraMAX archive, I wrote a mobile-friendly web app that lets you explore their video archive. Years of aurora activity can be quickly browsed using a “keogram index”, a collection of images that capture each night’s entire auroral activity as a single image. Selecting a specific night will take you to a virtual first-person view of that night’s aurora video, where you can stand under the aurora like you were actually there. Try it at apps.jufaintermedia.com/keogramindex
This is the first of a series of three posts, which will focus on all-sky cameras, keograms, and visualizations. Keep an eye on the Aurorasaurus blog and social media for Eyes on the Aurora Part 2: “Keograms” and Part 3: “Visualization” .
Jeremy Kuzub is an interactive software simulation developer and aurora photographer based in Ottawa, Canada. He has created an aurora visualization web app to explore years of AuroraMAX public outreach video of Yellowknife aurora, which can be viewed at apps.jufaintermedia.com/keogramindex
More to Explore
“Space Physics in the Earliest Days, as I Experienced”, Syun‐Ichi Akasofu
“Dynamic Morphology of Auroras”, Syun‐Ichi Akasofu
“The Development of the Auroral Substorm”, Syun‐Ichi Akasofu
The AuroraMAX website, an amazing resource with years of all-sky camera imagery
Explore the University of Calgary Auroral Imaging Group’s THEMIS all-sky camera and data archive
All about the THEMIS project, a linked set of all-sky imagers and keograms for auroral research
Astronomy North northern sky outreach and education website with aurora forecasts
“Why Auroras Erupt”, NASA Visualization Explorer
Swedish Institute of Space Physics all-sky-camera portal
The THEMIS array of ground based observatories for the study of auroral substorms
The THEMIS Mission (Book)
THEMIS Canada website
Hyperspectral all-sky imaging of auroras
THEMIS Mosaic Movies, Auroral Imaging Group, University of Calgary
The Kjell Henrikson Observatory site
All-Sky camera, Norwegian Centre for Space Weather
Svalbard All-Sky Imager Data