Journey Toward the Lights

Meet the new Project Manager for Aurorasaurus

Guest Post by Laura Brandt

When did the aurora first capture your imagination? I’ve never lived in a place regularly graced by the northern lights, but their beauty in photos — and the fascinating science behind them — keep drawing me in. 

Two years after glimpsing the northern lights for the first time on a vacation to Iceland, I am excited to embark on a new journey, supporting citizen science with Aurorasaurus. I will be working with Liz MacDonald, heliophysicist and Aurorasaurus founder, on many aspects of the project, including partnerships, working with the Aurorasaurus Ambassadors program and interacting through social media. 

My background is in museum education, and I fell in love with citizen science working with students, Scouts and the public in a historic garden. I am fascinated by the way that humans throughout history have engaged with the beautiful lights, and can’t wait to dive in and support the citizen scientists working with Aurorasaurus. 

Against a tan-colored field with a gray river, a round woman in warm clothing and sunglasses strokes the nose of a chestnut Icelandic horse.

Iceland has a fascinating natural history! As a biology nerd, I was excited to meet one of the famous Icelandic horses.

As I have started learning more about Aurorasaurus over the past few weeks, I have noticed that everyone who studies auroras shares a sense of wonder that seems to only deepen over time. Each person who has seen the aurora has a unique story of their first sighting, and I love listening to them! If you’ve seen the lights, please comment below — I would love to hear your story.  

I traveled to Iceland last year hoping to glimpse the aurora borealis and pay homage to one of my favorite books, Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, which involves the magnificent volcano/glacier Snæfellsjökull. The night before I arrived in Iceland, a solar storm graced the skies over Reykjavík with dancing colors, and residents warned me not to get my hopes up for seeing them again. Undeterred, I visited Aurora Reykjavík — an information center with an aurora gallery, theater, tours and exhibits.

As a small museum professional I appreciated the amount of introductory information and fun interactives arranged in a compact gallery. One station had a long line of visitors: a small box with a simulated aurora image into which tourists could point their cameras to plan the perfect photography settings. I loved the way the exhibit met visitors where they were by engaging their interests, managing expectations and providing beginner-level educational information explaining why the lights look different each time. 

In the museum, I set up my Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot and felt confident that should I be fortunate enough to see the aurora, I could get a halfway decent shot very quickly. I’m still learning, though, and have not always met with success. What is the best aurora exhibit you have seen? Have you ever gained a new skill from a museum exhibit?

Against a black background, a yellow-green wave reaches brightly from the bottom right to top left corner, fading in waves. The photo is grainy and blurry, but a fond memento.

Aurora over Fossatún near Borgarnes, West Iceland, October 2018. Taken with a Canon Powershot sx620.

Truth be told, I almost missed the show later on! Driving back at night to my camping pod near Borgarnes, I saw another car swing onto a pulloff on the side of the road, its passengers pointing at the sky behind me. I immediately followed suit, grabbing my camera and mini tripod, and plugged in the settings I had learned. The sky glowed green in silent waves. To be honest, the wonder of seeing the lights was so immense that I was torn between watching and photographing. I am glad I got the memento, but when the lights appeared a second time, I decided to just marvel. I love the beauty of the sky and am an avid lightning watcher, but this was an experience on a whole other level. I now understand why the aurora borealis has inspired magical legends for millennia. 

A rainbow reaches from a gray-brown lava field up in front of the craggy slopes of a broad volcano to the thick cloud covering its summit. Above, blue sky is striped and dotted with fluffy white clouds. In front of the lava field is a gold plain with a small parking lot, toward which a few people are walking.

In 2019 all the auroras we saw were pale gray to the eye, but Snæfellsjökull treated us to a magnificent rainbow!

I fully admit I fell head over heels in love with the otherworldly beauty of Iceland. So one year later I returned, accompanied this time by my partner — a geologist and astronomy educator. In the darkness past midnight as we flew over Greenland toward Iceland, I slid my north-facing window shade open and tented my coat over my head to block the cabin lights. This time, the sky wasn’t empty. Off to the north floated an endless, undulating gray mist: the aurora. 

It was magical to watch in the quiet of the sleeping plane. I never did fall asleep, but the beauty of the lights was restful. From the air, I opened Aurorasaurus and tried to make an offline observation as the aurora’s faint glow guided us toward the airport at Keflavik.

Staying in a cute little hobbit hole of a camping pod at Fossatún, we drove by day through wind and weather across the spectacular landscape of West Iceland seeking adventure, geology, folklore and history. By night, we stargazed and watched for the aurora. We could not have asked for a more ideal nerd vacation!

Under a cloudy sky is a broad, dark gray mountain with snow texturing the upper slopes. In the foreground, tall gold grass waves in front of a broad plain.

What’s in the center of the Earth? The characters in Jules Verne’s 1864 science fiction classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth make their daring descent through a lava tube on Snæfellsjökull. They encounter prehistoric life on an underground sea, but we now know the Earth’s core is molten and creates a magnetic field in space which is necessary for aurora.

While last year I relied on luck and guesswork to locate the aurora, this year I had some new apps to try, recommended by Liz. While network access at the campsite was extremely patchy, Live Aurora Network (which requires a small subscription fee) gave me a sense for the possibility of a visible aurora hour to hour based on their cameras, while Aurora Forecast 3D (a free app) confirmed where we were in the auroral oval. With these tools in hand, we saw the aurora twice more as a faint, gray, waving cloud. We couldn’t seem to find the right camera settings, but we can’t wait to go back and try again! 

I am especially determined because the next time I see the aurora, I will know more about the nature and significance of the lights. As a member of the Aurorasaurus team, I have the opportunity to share understanding not only from my colleagues at NASA, but from your experience and expertise as citizen scientists. And this time, I’ll be able to better document my observations as a citizen scientist. 

I am looking forward to working together to contribute to science through Aurorasaurus!

All images by the author.

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