Jan. 5, 2024

AuroraMAX camera launches for dramatic season of northern lights

Live feed camera from Yellowknife launches Jan. 8 so viewers from around the world can embrace the beauty of the northern lights
Aurora Borealis

A still from the AuroraMAX camera last season


Have you always wanted to see the northern lights, but from the comfort of your own living room?

You’re in luck. This Monday, Jan. 8, the University of Calgary’s AuroraMAX observatory will launch for the season. The ground camera in Yellowknife, N.W.T. offers people from around the world a live view of the northern sky.

The camera turns on automatically as soon as the sun sets in Yellowknife. If the sky is clear, the northern lights can be seen every night through the camera’s live feed. That’s because Yellowknife is within the auroral oval — a belt around the magnetic North Pole.

AuroraMAX is led by the University of Calgary and supported by the Canadian Space Agency, Astronomy North and the City of Yellowknife. The program started in 2009 and was originally planned to extend for five years. Due to its popularity, it’s still growing. AuroraMAX has over 38,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter), where active aurora alerts are shared as well as stunning video replays from the camera in Yellowknife.

An exciting time for the aurora

Space physicists are particularly excited about the upcoming aurora season. The solar maximum happens every 11 years, with the next one taking place in 2025. Around this peak there will be an increased frequency of solar storms which makes for powerful northern lights.

How it works: The outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere is called the solar corona, which is incredibly hot. While the sun itself is about 5,000 degrees Celsius, the corona is two million degrees.

A black and white headshot of a woman in a plaid shirt

Emma Spanswick

Avenue Calgary, photograph by Jared Sych

“During solar maximum, the corona is so hot that it’s unendingly expanding outward and getting replenished from below,” says Dr. Eric Donovan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who leads the AuroraMAX project with Dr. Emma Spanswick, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronom,y and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of  Canada Research Chair Tier II in Geospace and Space Plasma Physics.

“That expanding corona forms what we call the solar wind,” Donovan continues. “The solar wind is electrically charged gas that interacts with magnetic fields of planets, and that interaction creates what we call the aurora.”

Donovan explains that although the northern lights will be slightly more dramatic on the AuroraMAX camera in Yellowknife, the intensity of the lights will really increase in southern latitudes.

“We’re heading into an exciting period. Down here in Calgary, you will see the aurora much more often,” says Donovan. “The solar maximum makes a huge difference at the latitudes we live at.”

Scientific and spiritual

Like witnessing the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, the northern lights have a special hold on our hearts. The purpose of the AuroraMAX program is both simple and profound: to highlight the beauty of this scientific phenomenon and promote our shared awe of the night sky.

Donovan explains that he has two relationships with the aurora. One is scientific and the other is spiritual.

A man in a black suit jacket smiles at the camera with his arms crossed

Eric Donovan

University of Calgary files

“For my job, it’s meat and potatoes. I need the aurora because the aurora tells me about things like the magnetosphere.

“But the first time I saw the aurora? It was a spiritual experience. It was 1982 and I was sitting on the shore of Lake Huron at one in the morning and the aurora came over the horizon, and honestly, it changed the way I looked at the night sky forever. It was incredible.”

In the future, those working on the AuroraMAX program hope to establish more ground cameras across the country to give a broader display of the northern lights.

“Our idea is that you’ll look at a camera from outside of Calgary online at one in the morning, and go, oh my, there’s aurora above us, and then head outside and look at it,” says Spanswick. “We would be like a weather service. But a space weather service.”

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