“What if North Dakota had its own aurora camera?” 

A young man works on an enclosed camera that points toward the horizon

Vincent with the north-facing camera at Martens Observatory. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Meet the North Dakota Dual Aurora Cameras (NoDDAC)! This project is led by university student and Aurorasaurus Ambassador Vincent Ledvina in collaboration with Aurorasaurus, the University of North Dakota (UND), and LiveAuroraNetwork. Using both a north-facing and an allsky camera, NoDDAC provides aurora chasers with live views of the night sky from North Dakota. During periods of high geomagnetic activity, it helps alert citizen scientists when the aurora is visible. Mid-latitude cameras in the United States are few and far between, and with greater auroral activity on the way and the recent explosion in the popularity of aurora chasing, live webcams are becoming an important resource for beginners and experienced chasers alike.  NoDDAC will be integrated into Aurorasaurus citizen science via Twitter. The cameras will post live tweets when aurora is detected, which will be marked on the Aurorasaurus website. Specs are available on the project webpage

Sparking an Idea

The idea for NoDDAC came from a realization I had while aurora chasing. As an aurora chaser living and going to school at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, I experienced auroras during periods of high geomagnetic activity. In order to see them, though, I had to drive 30 minutes outside the city to escape light pollution. The aurora is extremely difficult to predict, and there’s no guarantee that it will show up. In order to determine if and when to head out, I learned to read scientific solar wind data. But what I found most helpful were Aurorasaurus citizen science observations and aurora cameras showing real-time activity. Aurora cameras became the resource I relied on most while aurora chasing. The nearest cameras at my latitude were in Washington and Maine, though, so there was never a perfect correlation between what they were seeing and what I would see in North Dakota. Even so, they gave me a general idea of how the aurora was behaving—real-time, ground-truth observations are always more accurate than indirect measurements from solar wind parameters. I couldn’t help but think: “What if North Dakota had its own aurora camera?” 

Aurora lights the horizon, framing a car on the road

Aurora and STEVE seen from North Dakota in August, 2019. Photo by Vincent Ledvina.

Building a Collaboration

I had used Aurorasaurus since I started aurora chasing at age 17, but I was not formally introduced to the project until November 2019 as a volunteer and later an Aurorasaurus Ambassador. In March 2020, I pitched the idea for NoDDAC to Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, the founder of Aurorasaurus, as well as to two of my professors: Dr. Wayne Barkhouse and Dr. Timothy Young. Together, we defined the project scope and the installation logistics.

Faint red and green aurora rise above the horizon

The first aurora photo I ever captured. Taken in 2017 with the help of Aurorasaurus citizen science reports. Photo by Vincent Ledvina.

That summer, I interned with Aurorasaurus, focusing on defining NoDDAC more and turning ideas into action. We partnered with Mike McCormack and Steven Collins from Live Aurora Network, and worked to refine NoDDAC project details. I was able to secure funding from UND to purchase the cameras. Live Aurora Network provided enclosures to house the cameras and software to stream to YouTube. They also graciously supplied their custom Pelco enclosures, which are equipped with hardware to power and remotely control the cameras. After a few months of pandemic planning with the Facilities Department at UND, we were able to safely install the cameras on a snowy day in December.

Thankfully, both cameras worked great and there were no major hiccups! Before long, NoDDAC was capturing auroral displays in North Dakota. One of the best of the year so far happened on March 20, 2021. The cameras were in position, recording rare waves of overhead diffuse aurora—a rare sight for mid-latitude viewers.

Green aurora against a dark sky. At the bottom of the image, text reads: University of North Dakota, Tue Feb 16, 2021 02:54 am Temperature: -15.0 degrees F, wind S at 5.0 mph. N, 12.520, 11.2

Active night of aurora caught by NoDDAC north-facing camera (Kp 4). Camera still by Vincent Ledvina.

Illuminating Science

NoDDAC has not only helped aurora chasers, but has the potential to help the scientific community as well. NoDDAC is well-positioned to study events that are frequently seen at mid-latitudes, and the dual-camera nature of the project provides two perspectives to triangulate the height and extent of structures. It will also be integrated into Aurorasaurus citizen science. You can read more about our future plans on the project page. 

Kindling a Career

The experience of leading a project like NoDDAC has taught me valuable skills that will help me grow professionally and move me closer to my career goals of science communication and space weather research. NoDDAC is the first time I have taken an idea from my head to a real project with tangible results. During the process, I gained valuable experience in project management, communicating between multiple stakeholders, making sure deadlines were met, and holding myself and others accountable. I also gained valuable logistics skills. Arranging funding, purchasing and assembling materials, and installing and maintaining the cameras has taught me some of what it takes to do hands-on science. Throughout the project, I honed my communications skills by presenting NoDDAC to many audiences, from my college astronomy club, to the Aurorasaurus Ambassadors, to large conferences like AGU and HamSCI. NoDDAC is a project that will prepare me for my professional future, and all the skills I have learned will help me be a better space weather scientist, aurora chaser, and science communicator.  Over the course of the project I faced several challenges like camera power cutting out in extreme cold, issues with snow buildup on the allsky lens, and coordinating logistics between all parties to construct and install the cameras, but these challenges forced me to come up with novel solutions and pushed me to work harder and advance my technical skills.

Thank you for taking the time to read and learn about my project. If you have any questions or suggestions, you can find me on Twitter @Vincent_Ledvina. I’m excited about NoDDAC and happy to talk more!

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