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Dispatch 21: End Science and Northern Lights

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Fred Marin

October 2, 2019

As abruptly as it started, it ended.  Working like clockwork, it was announced today that we completed our last science station.  I’m not going to lie, we were all eager to return home and to our loved ones, but it was a little bit bitter sweet.  Over the course of three and a half weeks, we went from strangers on a ship to good acquaintances, and some would even say friends.  Suddenly, we were packing up and groups continued to process the remainder of their samples.  Over glasslike calm seas, we began our droning trek across ~500 miles to where it all began, Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Canada.

To celebrate, we had a party where everyone on the ship got together in the forward lounge for food and beverages where we told stories and laughed with a slide show of our trip playing in the background.

Turning in for the night, we were alerted by the bridge of something amazing happen outside.  We all put on our heavy coats and walked out to the helicopter pad to see crystal clear skies, dead calm seas, and Aurora borealis in full on high definition!  We were riding along the length of a band northern lights!  Rapidly ebbing and flowing ribbons of green (sometimes even blue, violet, and red) light darted down in infinite laser lines racing across the sky.

The northern lights do occur on other planets with the proper atmosphere and magnetic fields, but Earth is especially equipped for Aurora displays.  The Earth’s magnetic field giving us compass direction is most valuable in its ability to shield Earth from the sun’s solar winds.  Solar wind is why a comet has a tail, and is also why it always points in the same direction regardless of the object’s direction of travel.  The Earth’s magnetic field creates a bubble that causes the winds to divert around Earth.  This is good, because with winds, it would otherwise erode the lighter gasses comprising our atmosphere which we rely upon.  The loss of a magnetic field on Mars is likely why the atmosphere primarily consists (94.9%) of heavy carbon dioxide.  At the poles where the magnetic field runs perpendicular to the Earth’s surface rather than parallel, solar wind finds its way in.  The particles excite gas molecules such as oxygen giving a green and yellow light, and nitrogen producing violet and red.

It was a spectacular end to our cruise to see the fabled northern lights under brilliant stars as we glided our way home across the Arctic sea.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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