Northern Lights - Southern Michigan - Nov 2001
Kp Index of 8
I'd like to take on the misconception that Northern Lights are either rare, or Impossible to see from the state of Michigan.  Since the new Solar Maximum is approaching, (2012-2013) this is a good time to spread some advice on when and how to view the Northern Lights from our extremely lucky location in the world.  And also issue a warning that our luck is about to run out.

The Great Lakes are quite special in recent history in that we are probably the warmest location on earth from which to see Northern Lights on a pretty regular basis. Southern New Zealand and Tasmania would be our nearest competition and even they get to see them a lot less often than the upper Great Lakes do.  'Regular' not 'Rare.' depending on how you look at it.  There are several reasons for this.  Our Latitude on the planet is roughly on either side of the 45 degree parallel, the half-way point between the equator and the North Pole.  However,  Auroras don't really cling or depend on the earth's polar axis, or the axis of rotation of the earth.  Alaska for example is well known for its northern lights "Because it's so close to the north pole"

Northern Lights at Zenith (Directly overhead)
Southern Michigan - Nov 2003
Kp Index of 9+
That's actually not the reason. The reason Alaska is known for its Aurora is because some areas of it lie directly underneath the 'Auroral Oval' or a ring of nearly continuous Northern Lights that is centered around the MAGNETIC North Pole.  This spot on earth, as of ~2005 was located at 82 degrees North, and 114 Degrees West longitude.  Michigan is at about 83 degrees west. This means that the Magnetic North Pole is actually about 8 degrees, or a few hundred miles closer to us than the North Pole. officially, our "Geomagnetic" Latitude here in Michigan is between 52 degrees North at the southern end and about 56 degrees north Geomagnetic Latitude, closer to Lake Superior.  The standard aurora oval "lives" at about 62 degrees north Geomagnetic Latitude.  In other words, if you live in Marquette, MI for example, you live less than 6 degrees away from where the aurora 'lives.'   If you imagine an Arc that goes from central Alaska down through Edmonton, Canada, and finally between Lake Superior and the Hudson Bay, this is the normal auroral oval for Midnight local time.  To see the Aurora, you need to be standing at or less than 6 degrees away from where they are positioned over the Earth. So in theory, a place like Marquette should be able to see them virtually every day. Really? I'll explain...

Northern Lights ('SubStorm') - Southern Michigan - Dec 2003
Kp Index of 6
Now Alaska as mentioned sits under the Auroral Oval, but it's not that simple. Northern Lights come in and out of higher periods of activity depending on the speed, polarity, density and temperature of solar wind particles hitting Earth's magnetic field. Ok yes, that's a lot of words, let me fix that.  What I mean is that when the sun gets more active, Northern lights get more interesting.  When they get more interesting they become brighter, and taller. They also move more, and take on spectacular shapes and colors.  The aurora oval itself begins to expand and when it does, it pushes northern lights further south.  If the Aurora is quiet, Not even that many Alaskans will see Northern Lights.  If they can see it during quiet periods, the northern lights will often be slow, dim, and colorless to the eyes.

Northern Lights - Southern Michigan - Oct 2006
Kp Index of 5
How often do they 'get more interesting'?  Auroral activity is measured by a simple value called the global Kuiper index or Kp.  A wing of NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) called the Space Weather Prediction Center or SWPC measures this activity and assigns it a value from 0 to 9. A quiet Aurora has a value of 1, 2, or 3.  While 0 means there's nothing visible at all.  It is reliably at least a 1 or 2 during 'Solar Minimum' and reliably at least 2 or 3 during 'Solar Maximum.'  However certain events on the sun frequently send this index higher especially during Solar Maximum. 

The Solar Maximum and Minimum are the ups and downs of activity on the sun, specifically the amount of Sunspots on the sun are  more numerous during Solar Max. This  cycle of activity on the sun occurs over a period of about 11 years.  The last Solar Max occurred between 2000 and 2003. The next Solar Max will occur between 2011 and 2014.  Major solar flares and solar wind gusts will increase the intensity of the Aurora.

Just a 2-fold increase in the speed of the solar wind will up the Kp index often to a 4 or even a 5. While solar storms (Called CMEs or Coronal Mass Ejections) can occur during solar maximum and push the value as high as 9, though 6 or 7 is more typical during a "Geomagnetic Storm."   This is the name given to a heightened period of Northern Lights and other phenomenon. Fits of faster solar wind causing levels of 4 and 5 happen even during solar minimum and as often as once every other week on average.  While solar storms causing Kp values of 6, 7 and higher typically only happen close to solar maximum and can happen as often as several times in one month or just once during an entire year.

Northern Lights - Nov 2003 - Southern Michigan,
under bright city lights - Kp Index of 7
What does that mean for Michigan? Well if you live in Marquette, or especially Copper Harbor, this means you should be able to see northern lights when the Kp value is a 3 or higher. As  I mentioned earlier that happens RELIABLY. or all the time.  Because these towns are close to Lake superior, getting a clear unobstructed view of the Northern sky is critical and easy to find. Unfortunately you also have to have a nearly clear night and it needs to be clear around Midnight.  That can be tricky on Lake Superior during certain months of the year. The hours before and after midnight is when the Auroral Oval is generally closest to your location, wherever you are on Earth.  Now keep in mind that daylight savings time pushes that to 1 am, and since Michigan lies on the far western edge of our timezone, add another half-hour to that.

Michigan's local midnight is about 1:30 AM during daylight savings time, and 12:30 AM otherwise.  So if you live in the U.P, find out when the Kp index is a 3 or better on a clear night, at around 1:30 AM and find yourself a clear view of the Northern sky. Your chances will be quite high that you'll see northern lights. I'll explain how to do that in just a bit.

Northern Lights - Southern Michigan - Dec 2006 - Kp Index of 6-7
Now areas such as Ludington, Frankfurt, Mackinaw, and Alpena typically need to wait for a Kp index of about 4 during local midnight. Again this happens at least once every other week, however you also have to contend with this happening AT midnight, and when there are few clouds in the sky, you'll also need a view of the northern Horizon..no Trees and no city lights or hills in the way. That's a little tougher than it is for Copper Harbor residents, but not impossible. 

 - Map of the Average southern extent of the Auroral Oval as a function of Kp Index value -

For Grand Rapids, Saginaw and points south, You need to wait for a Kp index of at least 5. During solar minimum, this doesn't happen very often. Then if you factor in that you need no clouds, a clear view to the north, away from city lights (more of a problem in the southern part of the state) and you need that index of 5 to occur around midnight.  Again not impossible, but not easy to do. You'll likely have to  drive somewhere to see them.  During Solar Maximum, however, A KP index of 5 or better is a pretty regular occurrence. And this is why, in my estimation, Auroras aren't rare here.  Michigan has had 2 F5 Tornadoes in the last 60 years. But there have been hundreds of geomagnetic storms in that time. We haven't had a 100 degree day here since 1988, yet our last geo-storm was in 2006 as of the time I'm writing this.    Here's an example showing 1998, which was about 2-3 years before the last solar maximum, (we are about 2-3 years away from the next one) Showing how many times the Kp index exceeded 5.

As you can see, that year, it happened frequently, about 14 separate times in fact. A number of those times it was greater than 7, which for us means an ideal display.  In 2003, at the end of the height of solar max, there were more than 45 separate events that exceeded 5.  2009, a solar minimum year, it happened just once.  If you are watching from the Upper Peninsula, even in 2009, you could still see northern lights at least once a week on average. During 2003, it would have been virtually every single day.

2003 August Display in Munising. Kp estimated at 3 to 4
Northern Lights - Southern Michigan - Nov 2004
Kp index of 8
A Kp index of 5 as viewed from the U.P. is absolutely amazing and awe-inspiring. For an equivalent view in Southern Michigan, we need something around 7 or better.  On two occasions i've witnessed aurora during a Kp 9 storm from a dark location.  You can literally navigate outside solely by the light of the northern lights. White cars turn green, snow turns green. Your skin glows. The northern lights themselves flicker like a candle and sometimes shoot arcs of light across the sky that resemble heat lightning. Truly amazing.  

So what happens in Alaska during the aurora storms?  The same thing, only the areas that 'nearly always' see Northern lights might not see them at all. The Oval pushes further south, out of areas like Fairbanks and into places like Juneau and Anchorage that don't frequently see them.  Much of Alaska cannot see the northern lights about 5 months out of year simply because the sun doesn't go down enough to enjoy them. While in Michigan, we still get 7 hours of darkness in midsummer and it's plenty dark around local midnight.  On the other hand, 5 months of the year in Alaska are completely dark, which means that any auroras, regardless of time of day, might be visible from somewhere in Alaska.

August 2007 - Munising Display. Kp Index of 4
January 2003 Auroras
Kp index of 7
How to find them?  Watch for Kp index for a current 'observation' of the strength of the Northern Lights. You can also subscribe to spaceweather.com's spaceweather phone and receive alerts based on any criteria.  To get a forecast of Northern lights, regularly check spaceweather.com  or sec.noaa.gov.   For more advanced users, watch the ACE satellite graphs.  Or even easier than all of those, use my favorite, the Geomagnetic Index forecast.

Nov 2003 Aurora - Southern Michigan
This upcoming solar Maximum might be your last chance to see them from home.  The Magnetic North pole 'migrates' usually over centuries, from one location to another.  For the last few hundred years it was over north-central Canada in the Northwest Territories.  Today it is wandering, quickly, for reasons scientists are quite certain about, back toward the direction of the North Pole. Theories would show that Europe will soon have a much better position to see Northern Lights. In fact darn good because much of Europe (Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden) is quite close to, or at, the arctic circle already, much further north in Latitude than Michigan is.  As the magnetic pole heads away from us,  our ability to see northern lights diminishes.  30 years ago we only needed a KP index of 4 to see them. Soon it will need to be better than 5. In another 10 years, it may require a 7 or greater.  That means our chances to seen Northern Lights are diminishing, Perhaps someday pictures like mine will only be a memory of how special the Great Lakes were when it comes to Northern Lights.

August 2003 Munising Display - Kp Index estimated 3-4
Aurora seen from space on Nov 5-6 2001. Note that the
bright auroras were positioned over Southern Michigan during
a Kp Index of ~8. However they could be SEEN as far south
as Alabama and South Carolina. Any location within 5 or 6
degrees of the position of the aurora can see them near the horizon.
On the other hand, Earth's magnetic field is also weakening. In theory as we get closer to a 'magnetic reversal.'  This takes a long time to happen, but exposes our atmosphere to more and more solar wind. This makes it easier for solar storms to overwhelm Earth's defense and cause stronger episodes of Northern Lights.

So, If you want to see Northern Lights, sit tight and wait for them to come to you, Or take a camping trip to the U.P. during solar max. They aren't that far away from us, you just need to know when and where to look!  Visit spaceweather.com frequently.  Learn about the Earth-Sun system and about the specific events that can cause aurora powerful enough to be seen from virtually anywhere in the Great Lakes or where you live!

Now as you can see, I have a lot of pictures from a variety of intensities, and from a mix of solar minimum and solar maximums.  Every single image was taken in Michigan. And these are just displays that I've actually photographed. There are at least a dozen other times that I've been able to see them, and a couple more times where I could see them, and my photographic equipment either didn't cooperate, or back in the day when film was still king, the processor ruined the images.  If the sky is clear, look up!
Click for larger image and details
The Rose is the larger nebula, the bottom half of the image. It is also known as the Great Orion Nebula. In the Messier Catalog it is M42.  The orb near the center of the image is M43.  The nebula at the top of the page is known as the Running Man. Resembling a person with outstretched arms and legs.   These objects are really easy to find in the night sky. It's actually the Sword, or the sheeth of Orion. These are the three 'stars' located just below Orion's belt.   These 'stars' aren't exactly just stars.  When you see the sword of Orion you are actually looking at this.  However only the brightest points of light are actually visible. The top 'star' in the sword is actually the open cluster of stars inside of the Running Man.  While the center star is actually the core of the Great Orion Nebula (or Rose).  The bottom star in the sword is actually a handful of bright stars just outside of the Orion Nebula.    The Orion nebula is actually one of the few things in the night sky that is forgiving enough to see in virtually any telescope, in any conditions, under light pollution, moonlight, etc, and still see a good portion of it with you're own eyes. It's also theoretically bright enough to actually see some of the color as well, for that though you'll need a strong pair of eyes, a really big aperture telescope under some really good conditions.

The Trapezium at the core of M42
Near the center or 'core' of the Great Orion nebula is the 'Trapezium'  This is 4  very hot and bright stars. These stars are responsible for illuminating much of the nebula around it.

The Orion nebula appears very large compared to other objects. It happens to be in our 'Galactic Neighborhood'  If you think of the Milky Way as a large city, the center being in downtown, Then the Sun and our Solar system would be a house in an a suburb closer to the outer edge of the city.  The Orion nebula would be a large factory down the street from us.  It's a stellar nursery, many stars have been born here and continue to be born from these clouds of dust today.  It is thought that the Sun would have been born from this star 'factory' since it's one of the nearest to us. 

Click for larger image and details
The famous Horsehead Nebula and it's less-well-known neighbor, the Flame Nebula.  Probably the first thing I, and probably for many other people remember seeing are pictures of or reading about in space is the horsehead nebula. This is often the first experience with something other than the planets in our solar system or the moon or the milky way.  It's shape is clear and it's surroundings are so alien to us. Both it's name and it's beauty are unforgettable.

While the Flame nebula is equally unforgettable, few people outside of amateur astronomy have been introduced to it! Of course if one of Hubble's first high resolution photographs was of the Flame, rather than the horsehead, perhaps we'd think differently?  The Horse and the Flame area of the sky is as large as 4 full moons and is also surprisingly easy to find. Not only that, only a rather small telescope is required to photograph it in this detail.  The telescope used for this image has aperture about the size of the palm of my hand. Whereas Hubble's aperture is closer to that of a large dinner table by comparison.  Let me show you how easy it is to find!

Orion is probably the second-most well known constellation in the sky behind the 'big dipper.'  In the Northern Hemisphere it can be found in the west a couple hours after dark late in the fall. In mid-winter, it climbs high in the sky just after dark. By spring, it begins setting in the east before midnight. You can't find it from late spring to mid summer, it's too close to the sun's position in the sky to see at all.  To find the Horsehead and the Flame, Look for Orion's belt. it is the the bright stars forming a line in the middle of the constellation.  The bottom star in this image, or the left-most if you were looking at Orion as a person, is called 'Alnitak.'  This is also the bright, large, blue star in the middle of my image, the horse and the flame.

Let's zoom in just a little bit more.  This is approximatly the scale of what you might see through low power binoculars.  Not much zoom is needed at all before you being to see where both the horse and the flame are located. These are the same three stars in Orion's belt the image above.

What does it look like with your own eyes/in an eyepiece?  I get asked this question all the time.  In a lot of cases with many things in space that are 'visible' from earth, it varies.
Some are faint and some a bright.  If your telescope is small (not low powered! I mean small as in 'aperture' or diameter of the objective of the telescope) or If light pollution or haze is a problem, there's little chance you'd see the horse and the flame at all. But lets say conditions are perfect. You have a modest sized telescope, low power or low magnification, and little light pollution and no moonlight. It might look something like this through the eyepiece. Why is it colorless, why is it so dark? I might blog about that someday soon. If your' e interested, read up on 'rods and cones' in the eye and how that might come into play here.  From here on out, I hope to provide a simulation of what you can see with your own eyes, in the best conditions.