Northern Lights, Ho! Reporter Tags Along with Aurora Expedition

Aurora North of Poker Flats, Alaska
Astrophotographer Roger M. Marty snapped the aurora north of Poker Flats, Alaska, January 22, 2012. (Image credit: Roger M. Marty)

I've seen the northern lights just once, on a trip to Alaska with my dad nearly 20 years ago. Now I'm back in The Land of the Midnight Sun for a better, and much closer, look at this stunning atmospheric phenomenon.

I got into Fairbanks Monday afternoon (April 9), and I'll spend Tuesday and Wednesday tagging along with a group of scientists who are launching dozens of weather balloons high into central Alaska's northern lights displays (which are also known as the aurora borealis).

The expedition is called Project Aether: Aurora, and it aims to snap high-definition photos and video of the northern lights from their very edge, about 19 miles (30 kilometers) above the snow-covered Earth. The researchers plan to augment this imagery with footage captured from terra firma as well as from the International Space Station, which zips around our planet at an altitude of 240 miles (386 km).

Project Aether: Aurora hopes to learn more about the northern lights, test out imaging equipment and inspire schoolkids around the world to consider careers in science. [Photos: Dazzling Northern Lights of 2012]

The team is counting on the dramatic beauty of those photos and videos, along with the sense of adventure pervading the expedition, to get kids hooked.

And there is adventure, too: Researchers are using dogsleds and helicopters to retrieve balloon payloads that fall back to Earth far from accessible roads.

The auroras themselves are similarly exotic to me. I know they result when charged particles from the sun collide with molecules high up in Earth's atmosphere, generating the famous glow. But staring up at the dancing, flickering lights — or even just looking at a really good photo of them — can instill a sense of wonder and mystery, one perhaps akin to what the ancients felt when craning their necks skyward long ago.

I'll be chronicling Project Aether: Aurora's activities over the next few days, providing updates on the expedition and my own small role in it. If I pitch off that dog sled and land face-first in a snowbank, you'll get to read about it — and probably see some embarrassing photos as well.

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.