Most of us keep our feet on the ground when enjoying astronomical wonders, but increasingly, there are options aloft.
What are the most awe-inspiring astronomical sights you’ve ever witnessed? I suspect more than a few short lists were revised after August 21, 2017. Certainly, a total eclipse of the Sun ranks right up there as one of the greatest spectacles in all of nature astronomical or otherwise. I’ve been able to stand in the path of the Moon’s shadow five times, and the experience remains as startlingly thrilling as ever. It tops my list. Beyond that, the ranking is apt to reflect individual interests.
For me, I’d include a very bright naked-eye comet (Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp the following year are the two finest I’ve seen), a total lunar eclipse (I’ve enjoyed quite a few) and the sight of Jupiter or the Moon in a big telescope on a night of really steady seeing. But there’s one more item—and it certainly belongs near the top of every skywatcher’s hit list: a great display of northern lights. As with eclipses, however, witnessing a top-notch aurora display can be easier said than done.
For residents of northern Canada, the aurora borealis is an impressive and frequent sight. Unfortunately, most of this magazine’s readers live far enough south that the shimmering show is a rare treat. An even bigger factor has little to do with latitude—it’s the all-too familiar scourge of light pollution. City lights make the aurora difficult to appreciate on the rare occasions it extends far enough south to be visible. So what is a resident of Vancouver or Toronto or Halifax to do? Hit the road (or the air)!
Over the past several decades, various forms of astronomical tourism have become increasingly popular and necessary. Obviously, to see a total solar eclipse, you’re typically going to have to get on a plane and depart for some far-flung corner of the globe. Today, a growing number of skygazers are travelling to observe the northern lights as well. Indeed, such expeditions have become standard fare on the astro-tourism menu. I myself have led several aurora tours to Iceland with a company called TravelQuest International. SkyNews contributor Paul Deans has done likewise (most recently on a cruise ship sailing among the fjords of Norway) and will do so again in Iceland this October. Happily, though, you don’t always have to embark on such a long trip. For example, Churchill, Manitoba, is a world-renowned destination for aurora watching. Our own Alan Dyer has conducted several “learning vacation” sessions at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
Recently, the RASC Yukon Centre partnered with Air North and Tourism Yukon to offer airborne aurora viewing on a chartered Boeing 737. This is another observational aspect that the northern lights share with solar eclipses. Veteran eclipse chasers know that you can usually book an airplane seat to witness totality above the clouds. Now you can also chase auroras in a jet. By all accounts, the inaugural Yukon flight this past November was a great success—the expedition sold out, and the northern lights cooperated by putting on a fine show. There are plans afoot for a second “Aurora 360” flight, perhaps as early as this spring. Similar excursions have taken off from the U.K. and New Zealand (for the aurora australis).
Although I’ve never watched an eclipse from an airplane, I’ve seen northern lights while in the air. Ironically, one such occasion was on a flight from Seattle to Reykjavik, on my way to Iceland, where I was to lead an aurora and eclipse tour for TravelQuest. Talk about an auspicious beginning! Because Iceland is more or less directly under the auroral oval, you’re almost guaranteed to see something if you’re there for a few nights. What isn’t guaranteed, however, is clear skies. Icelandic weather has a well-deserved reputation for being, shall we say, exciting. Of course, at the altitude of an airliner, every night is a clear night—so perhaps this novel approach will allow more skywatchers to add the aurora to their list of “best sights ever!”