This turned out to be a different experience than expected. Satellite data was indicating activity in the magnetic field following the impact of a weak shock in the solar wind. So going out just around magnetic midnight I felt 95% sure that I'd see some nice aurora. I was more concerned about the almost full moon, but to my big surprise there was no moon. Now, it had been full only a couple of days ago, so how the heck could it not even be in the sky? It would have to rise a little later, I thought. I took the walk through the dark woods to a nearby clearing, happy there was still snow on the ground to light up things somewhat. It is not as winterlike as it may seem though. At this time, the sun is up about 14½ hours, and temperatures can vary a lot. March 31 the max/min temperatures were 2F/-24F (-17C/-31C) and April 5 they were 49F/14F (9C/-10C). Snow is melting, but at a modest pace due to the cold ground below, and when the slush is gone, the mud probably sticks around (literally!) for another month in spite of very low air humidity. The frozen ground allows no drainage. And before the mud is gone, the mosquitos will be out... Ugh. This night's trip was only possible because the compressed snow on the skiing trails freezes up at night. Within long nobody would want to go there, and aurora season will be over anyway since it just doesn't get dark enough.
And this was it. A faint band across the sky and not as much as a hint of activity. This is a 30 sec. exposure at f2.8, ISO800 and has been brushed up in Photoshop. The hill is Ester Dome, and the light just above the horizon to the right is Venus.
Here's the aurora overhead - notice the Big Dipper to get an impression of the field of view. Also notice two streaks in the left part of the image. One is a satellite track while the other appears to be a faint shooting star. Can you see what makes me think so?
Another faint band became visible (but only hardly so) to the north. The photo details are the same as above (30s, f2.8, ISO800), but this time it hasn't been edited. Still it reveals more than what the naked eye could see.
Sunrise? No. I wouldn't have thought this to be possible as dark as it was, but with a fast lens (50mm f1.8), 30 sec. exposure at ISO800 and appropriate treatment in Photoshop, this is what comes out. It's simply a joy to watch the LCD-screen on the camera and see what is hidden in the dark. I was surprised to see that the look of Ester Dome resembled that at sunrise and concluded that the moon was finally rising behind me. Wrong again. As I walked back later, the moon was still not to be seen, and I was puzzled. Back at my office I checked the almanac and learned that the moon didn't rise at all! I could hardly believe it, but has some software for my telescope that shows how all celestial objects are moving at a given location and time, both above and below the horizon. And there I could see how all the odd factors can add up so the moon can lurk below the horizon all night even when 80% illuminated! Apparently, it was close enough to the horizon to cast a red glow on Ester Dome. The Arctic Circle, located at 66.5 degrees latitude, is where the sun can just exactly stay below the horizon for one day. The corresponding "Lunar Arctic Circle" is located at 61 degrees because the moon's orbital plane makes an angle of 5.5 degrees to the ecliptic. Fairbanks is located at 64.5 degrees, inbetween the two.
I turned my camera towards Venus which was setting - kind of. It took longer than I had thought, and it turns out that if the hills hadn't been there, it wouldn't have set at all! So the moon stays below the horizon, Venus stays above. Things are different up here! I decided to do a sequence of photos, each 30 sec. f1.8 and ISO800. With these settings even hardly visible aurora is captured, so even though Venus was the target, this makes my first aurora movie (but not really a good one). What I was surprised to see was a bluish purple color above the green. That wasn't visible at all, and I don't recall ever having seen it, apart from in others' photos. Maybe next season. This is a DivX-file, and you'll need the DivX-codec to play it (free, download here).
To show how photos can be manipulated, here's the image thumbnailed above after a treat in Photoshop. Now you have the sunrise appearance again.
The same photo, and if you couldn't see the colors before, now you can. You'd think that must have looked good in reality, but there was almost nothing to see and definitely no colors. Keep this in mind when you see photos of colorful auroras. One thing to look out for is horrible image quality. However, a camera which is not quite up to the task will also deliver poor image quality, so here's another tip: Do you see a lot of stars in the photo? Then it was a long time exposure that will likely show more than you could actually see. If the photo both has a lot of stars and a dark background sky it has almost certainly been manipulated to enhance contrast and colors, making it appear even more dramatic. Making photos look spectacular can make a thrilling experience for the photographer, but a deceptive one for those who see only the results.