Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Crazy flights and Alaskan lights

I got back from Alaska on Sunday morning having been away for 10 days in search of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I travelled with Astronomy Tours to Chena Hot Springs, a trip I had previously done in 1999, the previous Solar maximum. The tour was led by Dr. John Mason who gave presentations about the Aurora Borealis on 3 evenings at Chena Hot Springs. This is the 4th tour I have been on with John and he never fails to impress with his knowledge and enthusiasm. The tour group was quite small, just 17 including the local representative, Joseph, who was also a great asset to the tour.

First stop was Anchorage after 20+ hours of travelling including stops at Houston and Seattle. Houston! This was the one negative point of the tour, why Houston? Nobody could answer that one. In 1999 we stopped in Minneapolis, which seemed a more sensible option. Anyway we reached Anchorage just after midnight local time and went straight to bed. In Anchorage the temperature was surprisingly warm, on or just above freezing, and I was surprised at the lack of laying snow compared to 1999.

After a day in Anchorage we travelled to Fairbanks by train, more about that in another post, and then on to Chena Hot Springs the following day. We settled in for 4 nights of Aurora watching and the weather played ball by clearing, and remaining clear for the reminder of the trip. Of course the clear conditions also led to a drop in temperature which ranged from -8C during the day to -22C at night. Fortunately conditions were still until the last night when a gusty wind provided a wicked wind chill!

Aiming to photograph the Aurora I took my Canon 50D DSLR and EF-S 17-85mm lens with my old 20D body as a back up. Sadly I ran into technical issues the first three nights which limited my photography. I can only think these problems were caused by the cold because the 50D was fine during the day but locked up the first 3 nights with an Err50 on the second night. My backup body also locked up, lasting even less time than the 50D. I tried various things including removing the external battery pack and the external shutter release but always ended up having a problem. On the last night I wrapped the body in a fleece and it was working right up to the point where a big gust of wind blew my tripod over! The camera and lens survived and were still working but I gave up as the Aurora was very weak up to that point and the wind chill was beginning to work its way through my multiple layers of clothing. Unfortunately this proved to be a mistake as about 3/4hr later the best display of the trip sprung into life and I missed it!

Back to the first night, which was fairly quiet with a green auroral glow above the hillside, developing some rays later with a little movement in a faint curtain.

Orion over Chena Hot Springs

The green auroral glow shows above the hill.
Night 2 and I managed to get some reasonable images despite a fairly quiet Aurora with the oval again positioned some way north of us. We had set up on the runway with hills to both sides so we could see the glow which developed into some nice rays and a colourful curtain.

I combined the few frames I got, before the camera gave up, into the following timelapse, short and sweet:

The following night I went up the hill on the south side of the runway and found a position with good views to the north. The extra elevation allowed me to view the arc stretching from east to west. This remained mostly green with quite a lot of movement and rays. Again my camera gave up just before the display really got going but I managed enough frames for the following time lapse:

I also managed a few stills after this, having reset my camera and changed the battery:

Having moved down to the runway I managed to grab a few more frames before the camera died again, this being the best of those:

The final night I was back down on the runway as the wind was bitter and I felt it would be worse up on the hill. As I mentioned the display was very quiet early on and around 01:15 I gave up and went to bed, as did several others of the group. A little later the display really got going with the oval having expanded to be directly over head and those hardy souls who remained outside were treated to a very good display, including an auroral corona, for about 20-30 minutes. Had I gone back out I would probably have missed most of the action by the time I had got all of my layers back on. Its not a place to nip outside in inadequate clothing!

The following day we headed back to Fairbanks where we visited the ice carving championships which was amazing. On our final day in Alaska we watched the latest leg of the GCI Open North American Sled Dog championships. Conveniently this started in the road at the back of our hotel! More to come from those two events in a later blog entry.

That evening we began the long journey home, reaching Heathrow early Sunday morning after 4 flights!

Overall the trip was really good with a great bunch of like minded people. The Aurora was a little disappointing when compared to 1999 but we were lucky to be there during a CME impact for that visit so the displays were incredible. Despite the unfavourable conditions this time we still had good displays each night, improving night on night so no complaints. The train journey was new compared to our previous trip and the scenery was superb despite the unfavourable weather. The ice carving championship was also spectacular and the dog sledding championships was a bonus at the end of the trip.

I doubt we will go back to Chena Hot Springs, it has expanded beyond all recognition since '99 and the extra activity makes it less than favourable for aurora photography. The best location is up the hill on the south side of the runway which gives good views to the north. The runway is a popular location at night but vehicle activity makes for frustration when trying long exposure photography.

I was frustrated by technical issues during my attempts to photograph the Aurora which I can only assume were caused by the extreme temperatures. Err50 indicates an electronics problem but that only showed itself on the second night. I stopped using the external battery pack after that but still had the lock up issues. The lock up issues may have been due to the batteries in the cold conditions but changing batteries only resulted in a few more frames before the camera locked up again. Both bodies were failing in similar ways with the 20D lasting even less time than the 50D. I also stopped using the remote shutter release for a while as that was a non Canon item so i thought it might be an issue. The only other linking factor was the lens which may have been a problem as it is at the low end of the Canon range.

Hopefully by the next trip to somewhere with these extreme cold temperatures I will have invested in a better wide angle lens. That said many people were using low end bodies and lenses and had no problems which was rather frustrating for me!