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Northern Lights hunters. How to catch aurora

At times, hunters have to wait for hours and then leave with no luck

MOSCOW, April 26. /TASS/. The northern lights were flaring. Blazing, then going out and appearing again. Filled with different colors, quick, almost alive. The lights seemed to be very close, and we instinctively wanted to squat. The first meeting with aurora borealis - a miracle in the sky - was in my childhood. Interestingly, this miracle can be forecasted. To see, to catch the image and share it with others - this is what northern lights hunters do.

Northern Lights volunteer

Stepan Pisakhov from Arkhangelsk - a writer, ethnographer, storyteller, artist and art teacher - in one of his mysterious tales has described how to catch the northern lights.

"In summer, it is light here all the time, and we don’t sleep: during the daytime we work, and at night we are out, racing with deer. As autumn comes, we are getting ready for winter. Drying the northern lights. At first, they are not that high up in the sky. Women and girls grab them off the saunas, and boys - off fences. Then, they store them in bunches. Look - pull it upside down, it dies away, and we put them into bunches, hang them up. They hang there, wouldn’t dry up, wouldn’t disappear. Only in summer their light is fading away."

In his native city and nearby people still hunt the northern lights. We gave it a try.

Metal burns in the freezing minus 35 degrees and the wind: it’s quite a task to set up the tripod and adjust the camera. But we are on the hunt: the excitement is stronger than the frost. Before us lies the White Sea, we admire the pine trees. The forecast has promised sunshine for today. It’s clear, the sky is dark, Severodvinsk glows in the distance.

At times, hunters have to wait for hours and then leave with no luck, but we did see the lights. At first, they could be seen only through cameras, and later on without any gadgets. Delicately green - the most often color - sparks up for a few minutes and fades away.

Gintaras Shlekta, leader of the Aurora Hunters group said we should wait on. Judging by the forecast, he expected the lights to appear once again.

"How to make forecasts? We analyze the Sun images, made from satellites. If there are coronal holes - through them towards the Earth blows the sun wind - a flow of charged particles. There also may be solar flares responsible for big emissions of coronal mass - they may give more spectacular lights. Also, possible intersections of heliospheric current sheets. And then, we watch the sun wind parameters. We have two - three days to the moment, when it strikes the planet’s magnet field."

Hunters never make guesses. Even in case of a favorable space forecast there should be necessary conditions on the Earth - the sky must be clear. As for frosts, which many associate with the northern lights, they are of no importance. Nor is the season.

"You can watch the lights any time of the year. For example, I’ve seen pictures made on May 9," Gintaras said. "The best place to watch them is the North, but here the darkness is not year-round. In autumn it is more complicated - as a rule, days are overcast. Besides, the lights prefer the time near the autumn and spring equinoxes. The Earth’s orbit moves the best way to catch the wind from mighty coronal holes on the Sun’s poles."

It was in 2013 that Gintaras caught his first northern lights. A year later, he met other hunters online. "Friends used to ask me when the lights would be on, where it would be best to go for great images, how to set the camera. But, on the other hand, there have been people, interested in the lights, who were quite good at forecasts. Thus, I’ve organized a group in VKontakte. It has more than 20,000 subscribers now."

The group, uniting people from across the country, was made for photo hunters, for those who enjoy watching and for romantic souls, Gintaras wrote.

The luckiest hunters are in Murmansk, where they can watch the northern lights at any clear and dark night. Gintaras said, most pictures for publication come from there. However, seeing auroras is possible from seemingly unexpected locations, like St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region. Very rarely, once or twice in a decade, even from Moscow, Volgograd and Sochi.

Every hunter has a job, and taking pictures is a hobby. Gintaras administers the group as a volunteer. A volunteer of northern lights.

"Taking such images requires a certain level of devotion. A lot depends on tolerance. You may be standing in the freezing air for two hours, then the lights come for 5 or 15 minutes, and that’s it. Results cannot be forecasted."

Gintaras said he is still fascinated with the northern lights, they are different every time.

" It is complicated to have an image show how fabulous they may be: a huge 3D performance in front of you. The "crown" is most impressive. At moments like those, I feel I am a grain of sand."

The lights fade away to blow up in a few instants. We are not taking images now, just stare into the sky watching this performance in silence.

How to catch UFO image

Alexei Yakovlev, a northern lights hunter from the Tomsk Region has made probably the most mysterious picture of aurora.

"I was taking photographs of the lights and saw something strange: a rotating white ball appeared in the sky. My first idea was - what a strange, round shape of the northern lights! Tthe ball meanwhile was growing larger and gradually took half the sky. I was moving head restlessly to understand what’s happening. I felt uneasy. My friends guessed it could be something strange about the Moon, or it could be a UFO… I was lucky not to be on my own. The ball grew to unrealistic sizes and gradually disappeared, " Alexei said. "Later on, astronomers explained to me I had witnessed how an apparatus separated from a carrier, launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome."

Alexei had a dream to watch auroras since the time in childhood he saw astronomy lessons on TV. The dream had not disappeared, and in 2012 he joined a "Northern Lights" expedition.

"We drove a winter road from Nadym to Salekhard (nowadays, a regular road connects those cities), and every half hour we could see auroras. We stopped to watch them,"  Alexei said. "It was amazing. The lights were not strong, but we watched them as some miracles."

Later on, Alexei for a few months went to the forest at night to catch auroras. One night, he fixed the camera very well and later on, while sorting the images, he saw a tiny green light on one of them. "I was happy."

Alexei chooses a location beforehand. "In autumn, it is great to take pictures near water, to see a reflection. Going into forest is out of question - bears. Besides, the taiga, high trees. I need the open space. I try to find something interesting, to have an attractive combination. We do not have many roads, no mountains, getting to rivers is a big deal, the North is covered with swamps. It is much easier in winter, even to walk the paths swept up by snow storms."

Alexei is the group’s chief forecaster.

"I study US forecasts of geomagnetic storms. Analyze the Sun images, sizes of coronal holes, and then - using my own experience - make forecasts. I am able to be pretty sure when the wind from a certain hole will reach the Earth."

The chasers have installed cameras in several cities - to make images every 15-20 minutes in the hunt for auroras. "Thus, I know, when in my town I can catch bright splashes."

Alexei plans a new expedition. This time he wants to travel to the Arctic. The North, he said, wouldn’t let him leave.