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Teaching moment turns into photo opportunity as aurora borealis makes campus appearance

By Contributing Writer on October 9, 2013
Professor Tom Balonek photographed the aurora borealis Tuesday night on campus.

Professor Tom Balonek photographed the aurora borealis Tuesday night on campus.

Professor Tom Balonek and students in his Solar System Astronomy and his Astronomical Techniques courses were lucky enough Tuesday night to observe the aurora borealis from campus.

Students in the Solar System course were conducting observations of the stars and Milky Way when the aurora occurred.  They interrupted their assigned observations to view the rapidly changing glowing arc in the northern sky.

The course deals with the exploration of the solar system through ground-based observations and spacecraft missions.

Several lectures in the course investigate the interaction of the sun’s solar wind with the atmospheres of the planets. The students who witnessed the display got to see this interaction, not just read about it.

As part of their coursework students in the Astronomical Techniques course are studying astrophotography, and last night’s natural light display, also referred to as the Northern lights, proved to be the perfect subject.

For many of the students, it was the first time they had observed an aurora.

Around 8:45 p.m. Balonek used his Nikon D600 and a 15-second exposure to capture the photo attached to this story. (See full-scale image.) He described the auroral display as the best he’d seen in a decade.

The photo was taken from a dark location on the old campus golf course, not far from the president’s residence, Raab House, looking down toward the O’Connor Campus Center and Andrews Hall.


  • Jaime Heilbron '12 said:


  • Davide - Northern Lights said:

    Quite a lucky night for the students!

  • Nick Didio said:

    I saw it as well that night. It was amazing to behold!

  • David Feinbloom '84 said:

    Hamilton’s a good place to see an aurora; there’s less light pollution there than where most people call home. I remember seeing the Northern Lights when I stepped outside during a winter dance at the Union. A friend noticed I had been gone a while and went looking for me. They soon found out why I hadn’t returned. Eventually there was quite a crowd mesmerized by the show in the sky. I think the band even took a break. October is surely a more hospitable time for observing them. I hope Colgate’s astronomers and overall community enjoy more viewing opportunities. The sun has been busy lately.

    David Feinbloom ’84

  • Lisa Hillenbrand said:

    Last time I saw an aurora borealis I was in 304 West Hall, looking over the chapel. In 1975. Stunning!