Neon Skies and Flaming Chunks: Northern Lights, Meteor Showers and Star Gazing around the World

Featured, Offbeat — By Alexi Ueltzen on October 26, 2010 at 6:00 am

When we travel, we spend a lot of time staring. At maps. At things in museums (things that are “educational” and “cultural” and “old”). At natural phenomena like rocks and trees and bugs (different from the rocks and trees and bugs you normally see). At the signage in foreign bathrooms. At that woman on the bus with a cage filled with 30 live chickens.

You know where we should be staring?

The sky.

Image: radiant guy/Flickr

Depending on where you are, night-sky sights can range from crystal-clear constellations to the glowing waves of the Aurora Borealis to meteors streaking across the sky in a way that makes earth-bound rocks super, super jealous. If you like craning your head backwards, chances are you’ll have a great time in the locations listed below.

1. Where to see Aurora Borealis or the “Northern Lights”: The Arctic or Antarctic Circles

The lights have been known historically as “the dance of the spirits” or as signs from God; granted, this was before we had modern-day spectacles like flash mobs and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Now scientists have come up with the quite pretty and and only slightly-pretentious name “Aurora Borealis.” And according to them, auroras are caused by photon emissions, excited atoms and solar wind. Really. From Wikipedia:

Auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, above 80┬ákm (50 miles), from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen and nitrogen atoms returning from an excited state to ground state. They are ionized or excited by the collision of solar wind particles being funneled down and accelerated along the Earth’s magnetic field lines; excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon of light, or by collision with another atom or molecule.

Oxygen emissions make the red lights, nitrogen emissions make the blue and green ones. Be sure to share that knowledge when viewing the Aurora Borealis; you’ll probably impress that cute guy or girl over there on the sleeping bag. The best places to view the lights are within 65 to 72 degrees north or south (i.e., in either the Arctic or Antarctic circles), on a clear night, during the equinoxes (March and September).

So where exactly should one travel to see the Northern and Southern Lights? Alaska. Norway. Northern Scandinavia. Siberia. Canada. The Southern Lights in the Antarctic circle can be viewed from Tasmania and southern New Zealand. The Northern and Southern Lights occur simultaneously and are almost mirror images of each other. Which is very, very cool.

Image: Kabbachi/Flickr

Image: Kabbachi/Flickr

Image: GuideGunnar – Arctic Norway/Flickr

Sound like too much effort? Then watch the Northern Lights from the comfort of your desk, sofa or parent’s basement with the Canadian Space Agency’s AuroraMAX webcam.

2. Where to see Meteor Showers: Everywhere

Meteor showers are streams of cosmic debris (called meteoroids) entering the earth’s atmosphere at insanely high speeds. These meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere and immediately start to burn…and disintegrate, which is part of the reason we see lovely bright streaks across the sky during meteor showers. It makes for a really fun viewing experience from our end, and a really flamboyant way to die as a meteoroid. Fun fact: most meteoroids are smaller than a grain of sand.

There. You learned something.

Meteor showers take place all over the world year-round. Check out the schedule for especially notable showers here.

Image: Dominic’s Pics/Flickr

Image: Dominic’s Pics/Flickr

Image: Navicore/Flickr

3. Where to go stargazing: Chile, Hawaii, Utah, Scotland, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand

Stargazing is the poor man’s meteor shower, or the not-in-the-Arctic-Circle man’s Aurora Borealis. Stargazing is a good use of your time for many reasons:

  • It’s a great way to show your office crush how you really feel. And how good you are at hand-holding.
  • It’s an excellent excuse to lie down after a long day on your feet taming llamas. Or whatever it is you do for a living.
  • You can learn things. Like where Orion left his belt.
  • It’s like staring at the sun, but without the pain and blindness.
  • It makes that star you bought and named after your mom way more meaningful.

There are a few things to think about when considering a stargazing location:

Height. It makes sense that the closer you are to the stars, the easier it is to see them. But we’re not just talking “sneaking up to your cranky neighbor’s roof” high – we’re talking mountain-top high. Because not only are you closer to the heavens, but the air is clearer. Which leads us to our second criteria for really excellent stargazing…

Air quality. I bet you already knew not to go stargazing on a cloudy night. That’s because you’re really smart. Clear air means you’ll be able to see more than just the bright stars. You’ll be privy to the little, dim and insanely-far-away ones. Those little stars may sound unimpressive on paper (or on screen, since this is a blog post and only my Grandma is going to print it out to read it), but try stargazing in a city without smog. Please.

Light. The more light pollution there is, the fewer stars you’ll be able to see with your naked eyes. Stay away from big cities, wait until the sun has completely set and you’re guaranteed a more vivid and stimulating stargazing experience. Because stargazing is all about stimulation. And thermoses full of hot chocolate.

Image: a L p/Flickr

Image: makelessnoise/Flickr

Image: ciamabue/Flickr

Happy stargazing, meteor-viewing and “holy crap that’s amazing but now I have a crick in my neck” travels.

Tags: Alaska, arctic circle, aurora borealis, Hawaii, meteor, meteor shower, night, northern lights, sky, stargazing, Utah

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