Newshub's guide to aurora hunting

  • 06/09/2017

The sky is expected to light up on Wednesday night, as a "super massive" aurora heads for New Zealand.

An aurora is a light display in the sky, produced when high energy particles from solar wind or the sun hit the atmosphere, creating lights of different colours.

If you want a glimpse of the light show, it's best to be prepared - so Newshub talked to the experts.

Be at the right place

Aurora photographer Paul Le Comte says the further south, the better - but because of the scale of this aurora, it should be visible from Wairarapa south.

"The farther south the better. This Aurora is so big though on the scale (G1 = Oamaru south only, through to G5 visible in Caribbean), tonight's predicted G3 Aurora Storm should be visible from Wairarapa south," he says.

"BUT if it's bigger than expected, you'll see Air Glow as far north as Auckland.  The golden rule is always look south in New Zealand, and make sure you are away from town or city lights."

Go on a clear dark night

"The golden rule is darker the better, sadly tonight's Aurora, although massive, coincides with the full moon," Mr Le Comte says.

"Sadly an Aurora with full moon is like turning on the lights in the movie theatre and trying to enjoy the movie, doesn't work so well.

"So, if there wasn't a full moon, and the skies were clear (forecast not good), this Aurora would have been very visible from say Waikato south, even to the naked eye."

Use the right equipment

"Golden rule, camera on a tripod (or even a wheat pack on self-timer to get the camera still as possible)," Mr Le Comte says.

"Normally in dark nights, ISO 2000, f/2.5 at 20/30 second exposures. But with the full moon tonight, you might be able to shoot ISO 400 f/3.5 and only like one-second exposure."

Lower your expectations

To the naked eye, the aurora will look almost white.

Damien McNamara, director of the Space Weather Section at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, urges people to lower their expectations of a massive lightshow.

"You see all the colourful pictures and you go to see them, but you don't actually see the colours," he told Newshub.

"When you go out aurora hunting, what you'll see is actually a bright grey glow, it's not actually colourful."

Be safe

It's going to be cold, so bundle up warm and potentially bring a hot drink in a thermos. Make sure people know where you're going, and bring a torch and some way of making emergency contact.

"You don't want to be going along the coastline to somewhere where you don't know you've been," Mr McNamara says.

"You're out in the middle of nowhere, away from populated areas, sometimes with no cellphone coverage. Be safe."