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The Night Sky, Space Weather and Beyond -- An Introduction


Aurora borealis – most often sighted over the higher latitudes is a remarkable feat (Image: Val Pond)
Aurora borealis – most often sighted over the higher latitudes is a remarkable feat (Image: Val Pond)

Gary Archibald, Weather Broadcaster, The Weather Network

April 21, 2013 — All one can hope for is a crisp clear starry night – thanks to a well-entrenched ridge of high pressure dominating a region then – behold! The stars are aligned, the constellations and galaxies flex their cosmic, ethereal muscle – we are then captivated by the heavenly display.

Quadrantid meteor shower 2012, seen over the Florida Keys (Image: Jeff Berkes)
Quadrantid meteor shower 2012, seen over the Florida Keys (Image: Jeff Berkes)

But there is so much more to it than the obvious aesthetics.

Space weather in essence has more to do with charged particles, expanding gases, light energy emitted from objects traveling through space at incredible speed and stars, systems forming and collapsing all around us in the abyss of our galaxy and beyond.

It’s true – that the men and women who study, predict, and record such phenomena are some of the outrageously intelligent and creative thinkers there are on the planet.

The average person such as I - a doctorate degree in astrophysics is not required in order to learn and enjoy some of the fundamental constructs of science, our world and life as we know it.
  
Serene, perhaps even inspiring are the celestial bodies; but, the naked eye can discern some of nature’s great skyward exhibitions.

Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) – most often sighted over the higher latitudes is a remarkable feat.

Particles racing toward the outer layer of our atmosphere (the thermosphere) – so thin and incredibly hot that ultraviolet energy induces ionization (charging of minute particles) and in turn produce a heavenly show of light, often curtain-like structures in hues of fluorescent green, red, yellow, and/or blues.

The Earth’s magnetic field also plays a part in the loci, strength, configuration, and duration of the display. 

Auroras can be brief or last for hours. The closer one is to the Poles – the greater the chance of experiencing the phenomenon.  The southern hemisphere’s Southern Lights are called aurora australis.  

Solar wind is another unique entity.

Originating from our Sun it consists of negatively and positively charged particles. Hydrogen and helium gases that escape the gravitational pull of the Sun are key ingredients, and hence the locus points for ionization of particles.

The solar wind is the foundation for the heliosphere – the state in space with the Sun at its core that consists of the charged particle matter that is dispersed throughout our solar system

Mark Moldwin’s : An Introduction to Space Weather is a great resource for beginner space enthusiasts
Mark Moldwin’s : An Introduction to Space Weather is a great resource for beginner space enthusiasts

Comets, meteors, and asteroids also are a collection of active solar systems bodies that reveal something of the nature of planet formation, stars, and galaxies.
 
This of course barely scratches the surface. But therein lies a fascinating relationship that is ongoing between elements within our purview as we look at the night sky.  

Want to learn more – I sure do. Follow my lead of the path of many space science enthusiasts. There are some great books available online or at your local book store.

Some of these books are highly technical, written for the post-graduate university student; for the high-school or university student, check out Mark Moldwin’s : An Introduction to Space Weather (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

And you can’t go wrong with National Geopgraphic’s Backyard Guide to the Night Sky (National Geographic Society, 2009) – a layperson’s dream! It’s straight forward, educational, and a good read.

The book contains tips on what to look for, how to look for it, the tools required to get the most out of your star-gazing experience – and most importantly, the fundamentals of astronomy as a physical science are explained with the sort of clarity and ease that is not likely to put you off.  

On your smartphone look for some great apps such as my favourite (“Pocket Universe”) to help you locate and view the stars, planets, moons and the like. There’s a free version of it available, amongst others. Download the freebies first to try them out.  

IF you want to go high end, industry standard, high tech space weather forecasting – check out the two websites below for starters. Enjoy!   

Web references/resources:  

Space Weather Canada (Government of Canada)   

NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Centre (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)  

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