driftless dark skies

Aurora photo by Rob Steffen. Fireball photo by Pat Ladwig. Eclipse photo by John Heasley.

Driftless Dark Skies: Wow! (January 2024)

I love the custom of our astronomy club to begin our gatherings with a question. It’s a way to create space to hear from each of our crewmates about the skywatching they have been doing. I was especially fond of the question our host asked at our winter solstice meeting: What made you say ‘Wow!’ this past year looking up? It was a good reminder of the importance of awe as we stargaze. I had a tough time settling on just one experience, so I picked three as I looked back on 2023 and ahead to 2024.

Spring Aurora. So much has to align to see the northern lights. You need a coronal mass ejection or coronal hole facing Earth ejecting charged particles. That solar wind has to arrive with sufficient force and polarity during the night when there are no clouds
to block the view. They are very challenging to predict, and so many times I waited outside for northern lights that never appeared. But twice this spring, on March 23 and April 23, we had amazing displays as the lights streamed and danced and pulsed
across the sky for hours. I was so grateful to be able to watch them in good company as friends ventured out into the night to be awed. We can’t predict much in advance when they might appear in 2024, but there is an increased chance of seeing auroras as solar activity intensifies in the next few years.

perseidsSummer Meteors. We can see “shooting stars” most every night, but there are a few times each year when we can expect a meteor shower as Earth passes through the dust left behind by comets. One reliable shower happens in August when we see the
Perseids. Everything aligned in 2023: August 12 was on a weekend, the skies were clear, and there was no moonlight brightening the sky. I am especially grateful to a friend who shared her dark sky site in rural Richland County and worked so hard to make sure no lights ruined our night vision. There were dozens of meteors from dusk to dawn, some just a faint whisper and one a fireball that lit up the landscape as we were wowed together. 2024 may be just as wonderful. The Perseids are predicted to peak the
night of August 11 (Sunday). Twilight ends around 10pm and the Crescent Moon sets around 11pm. Here’s hoping for clear skies and a merry crew.

eclipseAutumn Eclipse. Alignments of Sun, Moon, and Earth are much more predictable than northern lights and meteor showers. We knew centuries ago that a partial eclipse would be visible in the Driftless Area on October 14, 2023 when the Moon would cover 45% of the Sun from 10:33 am to 1:17 pm. Sadly, the weather forecasts showed cloudy skies as we got closer to the event. I mostly resigned myself that I probably wouldn’t see this one, but also remembered other events that I missed because I decided it was too cloudy. There is always a chance. And that’s what happened. As I was working in the kitchen, I saw the sky brightening a bit and headed out to see that the Sun was visible now and again through the clouds and that it was possible to be awed for a few minutes by the Moon passing in front of it. There is another partial solar eclipse coming up in the Driftless Area on April 8, 2024 when the Moon covers 85% of the Sun from 12:50 pm- 3:18 pm. A partial solar eclipse is a wonderful experience, but I encourage skywatchers to be awed by a total solar eclipse at least once in a lifetime. You only have to journey as far as Missouri or Illinois or Indiana this spring to stand in the shadow of the Moon as the sky darkens in the afternoon, the Sun vanishes for a few minutes, and the corona appears. If you are waiting for a total solar eclipse to come to the Driftless Area, save September 14, 2099 on your calendar.

Here’s hoping that Sun, Earth, Moon, clouds, solar wind, meteors, and corona all align for you to be wowed in 2024!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador , with the International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate, and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

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