February 15th 2010, Bristol Airport

The pre-flight presentations were held in the Bristol Airport Media Centre. Paul Money provided a 30 minute talk on the stars and constellations that would be visible during the flight. Pete Lawrence, followed on to explain the connection between the Sun and the Aurora.

The activity predictions for tonight were promising although not certain by any means. Pete, who made tonight's forecast, noticed a very significant swing in the vertical component of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF), known as Bz just before the talks.

If Bz is north the aurora tends to be quiet while if Bz points south, the IMF and Earth's magnetic field can connect and more impressive auroral displays are likely to be seen.

As usual, the stars looked beautifully crisp and clear and during the flight. Nigel Bradbury and Pete Lawrence provided an enthusiastic commentary on what could be seen in terms of the stars, constellations and auroral activity outside the plane. Paul Money acted as the onboard astronomical rover on this occasion, assisting any passengers who weren't sure what was being described.

As we approached station, it was obvious that we were in for a very bright display. The flight deck reported back that the aurora could be seen very early on and indeed it became so expansive that both sides of the aircraft could see it during the northern leg of the flight.

The auroral oval was so large on this occasion that the decision was made to start the east-west orbital stage of the flight early. Even so, we were right up next to the southern edge of the oval and the views of activity outside were stunning and fully equal to a good ground based display. This was one of the brightest auroral displays we have seen over the course of many years. The scale, detail and motion of the aurora on this flight were incredible. Just to add the icing on the cake, a brilliant fireball (bright meteor) was seen to head down to the horizon, passing across the auroral arc. This was visible on the right side of the plane and as luck would have it, Pete managed to grab a shot of this event too. The photograph made the www.spaceweather.com website on the 17th February click here to see the entry.

Pete and Paul attempted to photograph the aurora and a number of the images taken on the Bristol flight are shown below.


Image ref: S10_9375 by Pete Lawrence

This image shows the fireball event seen on the right hand side of the aircraft
soon after going dark. It looks as if there are two fireballs in the photos because
the event was so bright that the camera recorded its reflection in the aircraft window!

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Image ref: S10_9425 by Pete Lawrence

The eastern part of the Northern Lights as seen from the right hand side of the aircraft
as we flew north. The brightness of the display this early on was a good indicator of what was to come.

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Image ref: S10_9472 by Pete Lawrence

Aurorae filled the view for those looking north.

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Image ref: S10_9478 by Pete Lawrence

This is one of my favourite shots, showing lots of auroral activity and green tinted clouds!

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Image ref: S10_9490 by Pete Lawrence

Huge towering rays were seen, giving the impression that we were in a cathedral of light.

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Image ref: S10_9531 by Pete Lawrence

The purple/pink colouration at the base of some of the auroral curtains is an indicator
that this was a reasonably energetic display. The lower purple colour is due to the
excitation of ionised nitrogen.

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Image ref: S10_9549 by Pete Lawrence

Looking away from the aurora, the view of the stars was dramatic. In this photograph Orion
dominates the view, the colour of it's main stars quite obvious. Below, the cloud deck is
tinted green as it reflects the light from the aurora behind the camera and visible on the
other side of the plane.

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Image ref: S10_9582 by Pete Lawrence

As we headed back to the UK, the aurora was still very evident for a significant
part of the homeward journey. It looked like the edge of a giant flying saucer
glowing with a distinctly alien green hue.

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Image ref: S10_9655 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: S10_9689 by Pete Lawrence
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