Updated April 17th 2015
It's been a very busy 24 hours, over the last two nights we have experienced back to back aurora activity thanks to a keen high speed solar wind stream which triggered a surprisingly long-lived aurora event for mid northern latitudes. I will cut straight to the chase - I have barely slept at all in the last 24 hours, in fact, I'm exhausted, I have the no-sleep shivers while suffering from annoying cold/flu symptoms which have left me feeling constantly cold and with aching muscles but my goodness was it worth it! On March 16th/17th Omagh photographer Paul Martin and I arranged a photo shoot, there was a slight chance of further aurora activity however we just expected a glow on the horizon at best with no expectations of a big show. We had to make a decision, go N or S of the cloud streamer across N. Ireland after sunset?, the streamer was moving slowly N and E so we decided we would drive S and get behind it into clear air deep in the beautiful Co. Fermanagh countryside in the hope of getting some nice sky scenes at Monea castle. On the road down I witnessed a stunning sunset however I had to let it go as I was in a rush to get behind the cloud cover. I met Paul Martin in Omagh then we drove S together towards Fermanagh, we got a surprise phone call from Conor McDonald informing us that the aurora oval had gone blood red in colour and that a major aurora was happening, that was a shock, thanks for that call Conor!. We drove with renewed vigor through the countryside with adrenaline pumping and arrived at our destination, we got into position however cloud covered the N sky. We could see the aurora glowing through the clear gaps visually and the cameras were detecting a purple glow. We got our compositions ready then after midnight the sky cleared completely and the aurora went into a remarkable outburst. There was no question this was the best aurora we had seen since February 2014 and within min's we already considered it a more spectacular show than the recent St. Patrick's night aurora. The N and NW sky was lit up by beautiful searchlight beams which slowly crept across the stars, we got the shot we had wanted - the aurora and Monea castle all in the same frame.
The pink and purple colours were stupendous, we couldn't believe what the camera was detecting, the colours were beyond words, this was an extremely photogenic aurora indeed and the outburst seemed to persist for quite some time. These are all 10mm wide angle with the Samyang F/2.8 prime lens, it was severely dark at this location, in fact, it looked darker than the Antrim coast where I had been aurora watching the previous night, M44 beside Jupiter seemed to jump out of the sky, everything looked fresh, clear, brighter and with greater definition, even the high circumpolar stars looked like it should have been an area of sky closer to the Milky Way judging by the amount of stars visible with the naked eye. We watched the pink beams form first on the left side of the castle then travel across the rear with beams over 40 degrees high shooting up from the middle then new searchlights formed to the right side until the castle was engulfed on all sides by purple and pink rays, we were yelling with awe until our throats dried up.
I took this star trail while the aurora was waning, this castle is epic, there is a wonderful energy about the place which is difficult to explain, the place is haunting, beautiful, ancient, majestic, bold and proud - to see a G2 geomagnetic storm of this caliber over the ancient ruins was a treat we shall not forget. I have more images to edit and will do a detailed report soon. The drive home was a mental battle, I was tired and not feeling well however some how I made it back to Maghera for 04.20 and managed to get laying down at 05.15 for a brief rest, however this wasn't the end of this story, we also had a fainter aurora the previous night on April 15th/16th.
Conor and I had a good time at Limavady wind farm doing night photography, these turbines were gigantic and the red lights looks surreal among the stars. The purple glow is a weak aurora across the horizon, we saw several rays too, Venus and the Pleiades also put on quite a show to the left.
We then relocated to Downhill beach were we watched and waited for a long time on the cold sand with photographer Neil Moroney then just when we were going to call it a night the aurora went into a little outburst which actually was rather beautiful to watch.
Short time lapse video of the Downhill aurora taken with the Canon 600D and Samyang 10mm, I batch edited the images in Lightroom and made the slideshow on there then adjusted the speed using Windows Movie maker, I also did several star trails too with the same stills. I will explain in more detail everything which happened over these two action-packed nights when I do the report. The Monea castle aurora however really was an epic experience which is likely the highlight event of the current aurora season for me.
The Easter break brought with it fabulous weather and high pressure which was a joy to experience. This was the good kind of high pressure as apposed to the opposite end of the spectrum known as anti-cyclonic gloom which is often accompanied by cloud and mist and hence cooler depressing weather which I cannot abide. However during Easter we got very lucky with day after day of long glorious sunshine and warm temps which reached the 20 degree C mark and during a brilliant road trip in Co. Fermanagh Roisin and I logged an even higher temp than what the official forecasts had recorded which was quite impressive for this time of year. We explored castles, had picnics and even had our first BBQ of the season. On April 9th I had a strong instinct all day that there as going to be a great sunset so I made sure to check the sky periodically throughout the day. After a late evening dinner I noticed the growing signs I had been waiting for so Roisin and I got in the van and drove from Cookstown onto the Omagh road with the intention of pulling over somewhere which offered us a clear view, however much to our frustration we got stuck in a slow moving line of traffic due to a tractor so we decided we would take the first road option to the right which presented itself. Soon a narrow country road was offered and we took it then we spotted Kildress church so we drove onto the grounds and instantly got rewarded with an epic view from a high location sporting a spectacular flat western horizon, it had all worked out perfectly thanks to that slow moving tractor. I set up the DSLR with 100-400mm lens on the tripod and began taking still images and video footage while Roisin took more imagery with her mobile phone, the above image is at 400mm.
The sunset was spectacular, I had anticipated a layer of haze and thick cloud along the horizon due to the slack winds and this was exactly what happened, this way when the sun sank into that layer the haze acted like a filter which reduced the intensity of the sun's magnitude which made the solar disk easily visible with the naked eye. It was relaxing to watch with the sound of a distant lawn mower and singing birds chirping in the branches adjacent to the peace and tranquility from the graveyard below us.
Deep crop showing the disk distortion, a sunspot on the meridian and distant trees and farm buildings on the horizon, we watched until the northern rim dropped from view however there was no green flash to be seen. What a remarkable end to the day, the dusk sky was calm and mild with all the scents from the flowers and trees and fields in the air which made us want to stay out all night, the atmosphere reminded me of what one feels when the Noctilucent Cloud season begins, however more on that next month!
Saturday offered us another treasure at sunset just when all light was disappearing from the landscape. Roisin spotted this beautiful Fox in the fields so we got off the main road and managed to get the van into a field to watch. The Fox was very far away, casually walking, stopping and sniffing at the far end of the field, again I employed the 400mm lens, the light was low so getting good images was out of the question but I did what I could hand holding the heavy lens in this light while walking through the field, he was just too far away and I had to use ISO 3200 to even get a shutter speed of 500/sec, here's a very deep crop from one of those images. Amazing to see this guy in action, what a scene this would have been on the snow!
Video footage of the Kildress church sunset with time lapse footage taken through the 400mm lens with sections of the real time footage.
Saturday was also a day of weak convection, troughs and cold air aloft which brought a lot of hail showers to N. Ireland and even a few rumbles of thunder. There was a storm producing c-gs between Dungannon and Armagh which I could see from Cookstown, the clouds were dark and low to the fields so I watched carefully for funnels, however the odds were remote due to straight line winds at the surface and cold air from outflow messing with any chance of a long lived rain free base. I did some chasing on the high roads outside Cookstown and did some filming of a hail cell with my Go Pro Hero 4 Silver which you can watch above. I'm still patiently waiting on the first proper thunderstorms of the season to fire.
The skies turned green on St. Patrick's night March 17th 2015 when a CME impact generated an unexpected severe G4 geomagnetic storm peaking with a KP level of 8. This report documents the lead up to this event including images of the aurora itself captured from Ballintoy Harbour on the Co. Antrim coast as we battled with mist and haze to witness the finest aurora storm of the current solar cycle. We experienced three outbursts however the climax took place after 23.00 UT when the aurora turned epic sporting multi-coloured rays streaming past the zenith into the southern sky followed by the formation of a rare corona which I have not observed since the extreme aurora storms of 2002-2003 followed by another 02.00 outburst from the Giant's Causeway which made for an unforgettable night. One page report with 11 images and 1 time lapse video. - REPORT.
Astronomy is not the only subject I'm interested in. One other such area is severe weather which will be playing a major role on nightskyhunter from now on in conjunction with my other astronomical pursuits. Check out my new N. Ireland Storm Chasing section and view the chase reports and images which detail not only storms but other phenomena such as a moonbows, noctilucent clouds and aurora displays.