Diffuse red Aurora captured May 12 2024

Aurora Chasing in the Blue Mountains

The G5 geostorm of 11th May understandably generated massive interest from Australians eager to see the Aurora Australis phenomenon for themselves. For many, it was a chance to see the Southern Lights from a location close to home rather than taking a punt scheduling a trip to New Zealand or Tasmania. True to form as it seems with all events in the sky, the Blue Mountains, and most of NSW in fact, was covered by heavy cloud which meant most of us missed out on the show.

Now I’ll preface this by saying I am no physicist or space scientist, but I have been following and learning about the Aurora Australis for well over a year, and I ended up giving so many tips on social media during the activity peak that I thought I’d just jot them all down in one place for anyone interested.

I was lucky, or perhaps crazy, enough to capture beams between the rain and clouds on the big night, and some diffuse colour the following night when we were blessed with some clearer skies. Are they the shots I would have wanted? Definitely not, but that just means I’ll have to keep trying!

Red Aurora beams captured in the Blue Mountains between cloud during the G5 storm of May 11 2024
Aurora beams captured between cloud May 11 2024

What is an Aurora?

NASA has a great layman explanation, but I saw a great analogy recently. Think of the aurora as the display that results from the Earths protective forcefield deflecting intense bursts of energy sent out by the sun.

 

Where is an Aurora visible?

Aurora activity occurs around the poles of the earth, the distance from there it is visible will depend upon the strength of the activity and the conditions at the time.

 

Can Aurora’s be predicted?

The answer to this one is, not exactly. We know when a burst of activity emits from the sun, but our technology to measure it between there and earth is still limited. Think of it like throwing a rock from the shore into a river. You know when it leaves your hand, but the size and spread of the splash it makes depends on lots of other variables.

They were able to an extent to predict the G5 storm that hit in May due to the size of the rock the sun threw, but they certainly had no idea it would be visible as far North as well into Queensland!

Thanks to the Stereo A satellite we’ll know about 90 minutes before an event hits. The best way to get current information is to download the Glendale App which provides activity alerts and a map of logged sightings from other Aurora chasers. You won’t find this in an app store but it can be downloaded from https://aurora-alerts.uk/

Another great source of information is Facebook groups. Not only will you get to see pretty pictures but its great for learning from people who have been chasing Aurora for a lifetime and getting the heads up on likely activity. The Aurora Australis Tasmania group welcomes members from across Australia, and there is a NSW/ACT/SA which is great for when sightings are reaching the mainland.

Oh and the Facebook groups are also great for checking whether you actually got the Aurora. Not only is there the possibility of it being light pollution but there is also a thing called airglow which can be easily mistaken by the inexperienced – and yep I’ve done it too!

 

Can you see the Aurora in the Blue Mountains?

It needs to be strong and it doesn’t happen all that often but it’s certainly possible. It was photographed over Mount Solitary by a local Blue Mountains photographer in 2023 (not me sadly, though I was shooting astro that night and may have caught some colour in some images) and was visible as far North as Dubbo at least once in 2023.

Red Sky of Aurora between clouds during G5 storm on May 11 2024
Red sky captured between clouds May 11 2024

Can the Aurora be seen with the naked eye?

As far North as the Blue Mountains it’s highly unlikely. Even in Tasmania it has to be a strong level of activity to be visible to the naked eye, where it will most likely appear as white streaks. The camera is capable of capturing far more nuances of light than our eyes can see so at the minimum you are going to need a phone capable of taking longer exposure shots.

 

What you’ll need to see the Aurora in the Blue Mountains

A camera or phone capable of taking longer exposure photographs and preferably a tripod. Most phones have a pro-mode which enables long exposure photos.

 

Where can you see the Aurora in the Blue Mountains

You’ll need a location Southward facing with a view of the horizon and no light pollution. If you think of spots in the mountains where you can watch the sun rise or set, many of these locations have a much wider view. If you have a view 90 degrees to the right of sunrise or 90 degrees to the left of sunset then you have a view to the South. Some possibilities that come to mind are Kings Tableland Aboriginal Site, Lincolns Rock, Olympian Rock in Leura, Echo Point, Cahills and Lockley’s Pylon if you’re up for the walk. There might be some spots along Narrowneck Plateau and Mount Hay Rd with a view South also.

Diffuse red Aurora captured May 12 2024
Diffuse Aurora captured May 12 2024. I wasn’t sure on this one, but confirmed in the Aurora group.

Tips for Aurora Chasing in the Blue Mountains

  1. Join the Facebook groups and download the Glendale app to get up to date information. Remember predictions are just predictions, real-time data is far better! Watch for the alerts and check the map for logged sightings.
  2. Find a Southward facing location with a view of the horizon and away from noise pollution.
  3. Take a camera and tripod or a phone capable of long exposures. If you have a tripod for the phone even better!
  4. Don’t expect to see the Aurora with the naked eye. Take a 10sec test shot on your phone to see if anything shows up.
  5. You might not see colour clearly on the back of the camera. The colour wasn’t super evident in my images until I was looking at them on the computer.
  6. Take a blanket and supplies! You might be sitting out there a while without anything popping up.

 

Tips for photographing the Aurora on camera

  1. Ideally, you want a wide aperture lens (this is your f-number and it should be as small as it goes.) A wide angle (short focal length) lens with manual focus would be preferable. My lens is f2.8 and 12mm.
  2. If you have a manual focus lens set it to infinity focus.
  3. Set the ISO manually, having it on auto will confuse the camera. ISO of 1600-2000 should do.
  4. Use a tripod. Turn off the cameras image stabilisation as the tripod will be doing this for you.
  5. Experiment with exposure length for desired result. My images were a 1 minute exposure but I could have captured with a shorter exposure on the storm night if it weren’t for the heavy cloud.

Good luck and happy Aurora chasing!

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