Northern Lights – What the heck is that?


Photo by fellow club member and Astro Babe Peg Zenko.
Photo by fellow club member Peg Zenko. See more of her photos at

Northern lights – those beautiful green and red ribbons of dancing light that show up in the northern sky at night. I’m frequently asked – What are they? Before I answer, I ask them what they think.

I get some pretty interesting answers. One person’s theory is that they’re caused by pollution. Another thought  it’s the reflection of light off the polar ice cap. I’m pretty sure someone’s theory involved aliens and a government conspiracy.

Thank goodness my hubby was out at his brother’s house in the country one night when the northern lights were doing a dance across the sky. They looked as though the green ribbons were reaching down and touching the horizon. My brother-in-law was a little unnerved by the show until my hubby (who actually does listen to me) explained to him what they were.

The coolest show I’ve ever seen was about ten years ago, when I stood mesmerized in my neighbors driveway (too many trees by me) watching what looked like red ink being poured into the earth’s atmosphere. If I didn’t know what I was seeing, I may have been a little worried about what was happening!

So – in a nutshell – here’s what causes them: It starts with a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, essentially a very large solar flare. Particles from the flare get caught up in our atmosphere and are attracted to the poles (both north and south). These particles are electrically charged and react with the gases in our atmosphere, bringing us the northern lights! For a more detailed explanation you can go to

So no worries – the next time you happen to catch sight of the northern lights remain calm! Enjoy the show, but first call your astronomy loving friends so they don’t miss out!!


Mars Meteorite Road Trip

At the end of September, the Astro Babes attended a lecture in Madison that was part of the “Biosignatures: What Does Life Leave Behind?” exhibit. (See the related “Trip to Mars” blog entry). It was a rare opportunity to hold a piece of Mars in our hands.

Here are a few pictures from this latest adventure.

Barbara Millicent Roberts, our new guest blogger, astronaut, and notable Martian expert, accompanied the Astro Babes on this road trip. As a Martian expert, Roberts she said she was excited to see the Tissint meteorite from Mars.


The reception and the preview of the meteorite exhibit was held by invitation only.


A presentation entitled “How to Build an Astrobiology Exhibit in 1,272 Easy Steps” was followed by a reception in the museum. The evening not only featured a piece of Mars, but also a rare opportunity to hold another piece in our hands.


Amy holding an actual piece of Mars during the visit to the UW-Madison Geology Museum. The owner, a private collector from Arizona, loaned this piece to the museum for the opening of this meteorite exhibit.


Close-up of the Red Planet.


Roberts was really excited about having an actual piece of Mars rest on her lap. “I was so nervous someone had to hold me up!” she said.


Here Roberts is catching a glimpse of the main attraction, the Tissint meteorite, that is believed to have broken off the Red Planet around 700,000 years ago. Its landing was witnessed in Morocco in 2011 which makes it extremely rare.


Behind the smile, Lynn is contemplating stuffing this 320 lb. Canyon Diablo Iron Meteorite fragment into her purse. This meteorite was found near Winslow, AZ, and is one of many pieces on display.


Here are some fragments of the Mifflin meteorite that landed in southwestern Wisconsin
The exhibit included some fragments of the Mifflin meteorite that landed in southwestern Wisconsin in 2010. The Astro Babes were there and had a chance to do a little meteorite hunting of their own. (See the related “Hunting for Meteorites” blog entry.)


What Mars party would be complete without a little wine and some custom-made Martian doughnuts?

Ohio Fireballs Fizzle

Two fireballs streaked across meteoritethe night sky in Ohio last week: one on Sept. 26 and another on Sept. 27. The Astro Babes started crossing their fingers and hoping another Meteorite Road Trip was in their near future. But unfortunately, neither meteorite seems to be a candidate for a leaving a large number of sizeable meteorites in its strewn field.

One meteorite was moving too quickly and burned up, and the other was probably too small to drop any sizeable meteorites. Additionally, no meteorite finds have been reported so far, so there is not much hope that pieces from either meteorite survived the fall through the atmosphere.

To keep abreast of any new falls, Amy and I signed up for Yahoo! Alerts, and whenever a news story with keywords like “fireball” and “meteorite” shows up in the Yahoo! News feed, we receive an email. It’s a great way to quickly learn about any new falls in our neck of the woods.

Guess we’ll keep our meteorite hunting bags packed and our fingers crossed.

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