Last night all the signs were looking good for an exceptional display by the Northern Lights meaning that even those of us towards the south of Britain stood a chance at getting in on an act normally reserved for our Nordic neighbours. This flurry of excitement and expectation had been sparked by a large coronal mass ejection which hit our atmosphere early on Friday morning. A second wave arrived later that afternoon so come darkness, and with one eye on Twitter for the latest updates, we headed into the Brecon Beacons ready for whatever lay ahead. As it turned out our chosen destination couldn’t have been more perfect with wide, open views stretching to the north with virtually no light pollution whatsoever. What little there was came almost entirely from the near full moon which once your eyes became adjusted lit up the landscape beautifully. To my surprise we weren’t the only mad ones to have had the same idea and as midnight approached the small car park we were in steadily began to fill. From serious observers with tripods and telescopes to families wearing onesies we certainly made for a mixed bunch as the long waiting game began.
Skip forward two hours and despite everyone’s best efforts it looked like tonight was not going to be the night. Although the aurora had reached storm level the Earth’s magnetic field remained pointing resolutely north meaning that any action was happening well away from our position. Combined with thickening cloud and little chance of any change in the offing we eventually called it quits a little after one.
That’s not to say the night was not without its benefits however. Far from it. Firstly, and probably most importantly, we have at long last found a readily accessible location from which to watch future displays should they occur. Secondly I’ve had the opportunity to put my camera to the test under night-time conditions and am now confident that when the aurora does appear, and believe me I will catch up with it eventually, there will at least be some usable record produced.
On a more, shall we say, philosophical slant the night also provided me with two stark reminders of just how far we’ve come as a human race and yet also how small and insignificant our presence really is. The first moment of clarity came whilst browsing my Twitter timeline which on this occasion included a photograph taken mere moments before by an astronaut on the international space station. The technological advancements and scientific leaps that have made this an everyday event are almost unimaginable and it gave me cause to reflect on changes that have occurred in even my own brief lifetime. Only fifteen years ago I was at Cape Canaveral in Florida watching scientists construct the latest module of that very space station, an era well before broadband internet, smart phones and Facebook. To have all that technology now in the palm of my hand with an almost instantaneous link to people in space is truly remarkable. And yet, on Earth and above it, we were all still watching and waiting for events that operate on a scale almost beyond our comprehension and which we may never fully understand. That for me, right there, was the real highlight of the night.