A Frenzy of Sky Phenomena: Reflections on a Once-in-a-Lifetime Chase

In the early morning hours of July 13, a slow-moving coronal mass ejection from the Sun arrived early on its journey to Earth. That afternoon, word spread across social media in Europe, Canada, and the US: there might be aurora tonight. No one knew, however, whether it would last long enough for this part of Earth to turn away from the Sun, toward dark skies and the part of the magnetosphere that triggers nighttime aurora. Anticipation mixed with anxiety into the evening as aurora chasers dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights alongside Comet NEOWISE. Then, just as the phenomena grew more likely, clouds obscured much of the sky, blocking northern views. Some dedicated aurora hunters, like Notanee Bourassa, drove great distances to escape the cloud cover and find clear skies. 

As skywatchers pointed binoculars, telescopes, and cameras upward to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE, the sky blossomed with noctilucent clouds, aurora, possible dune aurora, and STEVE. Watchers described their amazement as one thing, then another, then yet another came out. The result was an unforgettable (and beautifully-photographed) event. Our Twitter feed filled with wonder, and we wanted to capture and share the excitement—an expression of the joy of chasing wonders in the sky. 

The following are impressions from Aurorasaurus Ambassadors who were out that night. One, Donna Lach, even had a photo featured by NASA!

A landscape with a sky crossed by green and purple bands of aurora, along with other sky phenomena: STEVE, the ISS, and Comet NEOWISE.

Photo of NEOWISE, the ISS, aurora, and STEVE by Donna Lach, taken on July 14 at 1:06 am local time in Southwest Manitoba

“It was just so nice to see it after a dry spell for so long—it was a thrill! It was an epic night; you don’t see aurora like that very often, with all the features and structures that were involved. I was constantly saying “Wow!” 

—Donna Lach, Plumas, Manitoba, Canada

Comet NEOWISE shines in the sky against a light glow toward the horizon and a silhouetted mountain. and house lights sparkling in the foreground.

Photo by Dr. Joe Shaw, looking over the Bridger Mountains just east of Bozeman, Montana, USA at 2:50 am MDT (0950 UTC) on Sunday, July 12, 2020.

“I had gone out to photograph Comet NEOWISE without really expecting the extra treat of seeing noctilucent clouds at this latitude. Especially when treats like this occur, I look down the hill to the houses where all the people are asleep and I feel sorry they’re missing this, but also grateful because I enjoy the solitude.” 

—Dr. Joseph Shaw, Bozeman, Montana, USA

Aurora curl across the sky alongside Comet NEOWISE

Photo of NEOWISE with aurora by Notanee Bourassa. He drove from Regina to Kisbey, Saskatchewan, and then drove north 10km. He started shooting at 10:51pm CST on July 13 and stopped at 1:09am July 14.

“That night was super exciting! I could see a faint band of the Northern Lights even during twilight. I’d been praying all day that the hemispheric power would hold and the IMF and Bz would behave. I started to see activity from the north wind their way down in a diffuse band in front of me. The main band grew brighter and advanced southward, then the excitement started from the East, and began rippling over. I thought: it’s going to happen! I had to reset my cameras to take more frequent intervals because the aurora was getting exciting. When there was action, it was so awesome. As I said on Twitter, I feel like aurora is the visual representation of cosmic music being played on electromagnetic field lines. Last night was epic, in its most sincere meaning. We had STEVE, we had dunes, we had noctilucent clouds, we had a comet! I’ve had one hour of sleep and I’m still buzzing.  I don’t know if I can sleep tonight!” 

—Notanee Bourassa, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Comet NEOWISE shines in a field of stars

Photo of Comet NEOWISE by Vincent Ledvina, as seen outside New York City on July 25, 2020 at 11 pm EDT. Cloud cover prevented Ledvina from photographing NEOWISE with the aurora on July 14.

“Everyone says, ‘but you’ve seen the aurora already, why do you want to see it again?’  And my response is, no two displays are the same—you discover something different each time.”

—Vincent Ledvina, Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA

Behind large rocks, noctilucent clouds cross the sky. Above them is the glow of aurora, and at the top, the comet NEOWISE

Photo by Chris Ratzlaff of NEOWISE, aurora, and noctilucent clouds at the Okotoks Erratic “Big Rock,” Alberta, Canada, just after midnight on July 14.

That night was a frenzy of sky phenomena! There were so many things to look at, you almost had to pick and choose what to photograph at the same time. There was almost too much: the aurora, the dunes, STEVE, the Milky Way, and a once in a lifetime comet! There had been such a dry spell, it almost felt like they all came out of lockdown together. It was amazing. Where I was, people were spread out with their cameras and telescopes to catch the comet. As the aurora came out, a cheer went up across the park. It was a pretty awesome night.”

—Chris Ratzlaff, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Did you catch NEOWISE or the aurora? Let us know in the comments—or better yet, please make a backdated report on Aurorasaurus.org! Helping piece together a timeline of the STEVE and aurora—as well as other events—is scientifically inspiring, as well as the amazing feeling of special unexpected conjunctions. See you in about 6,800 years, hopefully, NEOWISE!

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