Belfast Telegraph

I was in the dark about those lights fantastic

BY FRANCES BURSCOUGH

THE Aurora Borealis, or 'northern lights', is a natural phenomenon which is seen most commonly in the sky above high latitude Arctic regions close to the North Pole.

The name is derived from the Roman Goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the word for wind, Borealis. It is caused by the collision of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere) of earth. When the surface of the sun ejects a cloud of gas (known as a coronal mass ejection or CME) and one of these reaches earth, it collides with our magnetic field causing complex changes to happen to the magnetic particles, which then flow along lines of magnetic force into the polar regions. These particles are boosted with energy in Earth's upper atmosphere, and when they collide with our oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they produce the dazzling auroral light displays of irridescent greens, blues, purples and reds.

I know all this because I'm a bit of an aurora nerd. Actually, to be more precise, it's an obsession.

All my life it's been my very greatest and most persistent ambition to see them and, as yet, I never have.

In Northern Ireland we are normally too far south to get a view of the northern lights. But one Friday afternoon last year, an alert came through that aurorae may be visible from the North Coast within the next 24 hours, weather and light pollution permitting. So I cancelled my Saturday night plans to go out and instead began to organise a trip from home in Bangor to the opposite coast.

A picnic basket was filled, a flask of coffee was made and, when darkness fell, off I went, camera at the ready, all set to be awe-inspired!

However, halfway along the motorway I got a call from my friend Marina, who lives in Coleraine. Thick cloud had descended! Visibility: virtually nil. That was the end of that then. I went home.

So next up, I tried to arrange a holiday in Norway, only to discover upon further investigation that Scandinavia is the most expensive part of Europe to visit. Once again, that was the end of that.

Would I ever get to see them? It was looking increasingly unlikely ...

Until last week, that is, when the future for my aurora ambition started to brighten considerably. Reports of sightings along the Antrim Coast again appeared in the news and on the net. CME readings were high, and even parts of England and Scotland were getting a glimpse of the heavenly sights.

Not only that, but a special astronomy TV series was on all week, presented by the delectable Brian Cox (whom I'm planning to marry, but that's another story ...) and on this they had said that the likelihood of local aurora was higher than it had been in years. They even had a private plane which was going up during every episode to try and seek out the northern lights.

So last Wednesday evening after tea I sat myself down in front of the telly to watch Stargazer Live on BBC2, hoping that finally I might get to see the spectacle I've dreamed of for 50 years, even if it was through the medium of live television.

Lo and behold, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time and the celestial spectacle flashed in front of them in all its glory.

It was amazing to see ... even if it was only through the medium of live TV.

I was so envious of the camera crew, the pilot, and the presenter. If only I'd been there too ...

An hour later, as I switched off the TV and turned back to Facebook to check for updates, I noticed an amazing picture had just been posted by my friend Colin, an amateur photographer who lives just a few hundred yards from my house in Bangor.

It was the familiar view I see every day from my own bedroom window -- Ballyholme Bay -- but it was lit up with the iridescent greens and turquoises of a vivid Aurora Borealis. The caption under it read: "OMG Incredible sight tonight! The Northern Lights over Bangor, right in front of my house!"

It transpired that while I was inside my living room, with the curtains shut, watching Stargazer live on TV ... at that very same time ... at that very same place ... the sky outside my house, for one brief and beautiful moment, for once in a lifetime, was awash with colour.

And I missed it. Because I was watching it on telly. Thank you, Aurora, Roman goddess of dawn. Thank you very much indeed.

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