Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ringside Seats

Early Friday morning I was en route from Oakland to Anchorage, over the Gulf of Alaska.

As luck would have it, that gave the two of us what were the best seats in the house for the aurora that followed last week's solar eruption.

Over the hour and a half or so before the descent into Anchorage we approached, then flew directly under, the most active area within probably 600 miles. It was such an alien sight that mere words, or at least any I am capable of writing, cannot possibly suffice.

From a distance, initially 500 miles, it looked like a curtain with a particularly bright fringe at the bottom. As we got closer, it became more like a a green waterfall going the wrong direction, with lots of waves and pulses. Ultimately, we flew right under it, where it seemed what being inside a flame must look like.

Without any sense of scale, distance is devilishly difficult to estimate. But, given a look angle of about 60 degrees, and the opposite side of the triangle being about 50 miles (disregarding our altitude of 6 miles), then the base of our personal aurora was roughly 20-30 miles away. The apparent motion against the background stars seemed consistent with that guesstimate.

It sure looked nearer, though.  At our closest approach, we could see field line details that, frustatingly, a camera couldn't possibly capture, and two thirds of the atmosphere couldn't get in the way of.    When I leaned over until my head hit the side window, I could see the streaks, torrents, and waves vaulting over the plane out into space.

And it was a show put on just for the two of us.

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