January 24-25, 2012 Badlands Auroras, Amazing Fireball, Star Trails and Wild Sunrise

There's a lot to say on this one. Where to start. I more or less fell in love with the Badlands once I actually went into the park one time. Spent a night there shooting stars and couldn't help but be amazed. No one around, amazing landscape and very dark. Then probably the next trip there this happens... http://stormandsky.com/08-6-18fogstorm.html . It's freaky that happened and I was actually there for it. But anytime I'm back home and feeling like I need to go somewhere and just chill, I always wish I was in the Badlands at night. I get tempted to just go there and do that all the time. Before this trip, with the aurora potential, I felt like maybe some Badlands magic could happen again if I went. But there would be some issues and flags to not go.

The sun sends off a big flare and it takes a couple days to get here. Looked good though. Problem was the models forecasted it to hit at 8 a.m. Not good. But some can last for a good while and have sub-storms. Even if you get one timed right, it's a whole nother deal to have it be a good geo-effective hit. There's a reason they are rare in mid-latitudes.

I woke up and said to myself, if it hasn't hit by 10 a.m. I will go. That's just saying, at least it wouldn't have hit too early or as early. If it hit at 8 I'd have a hard time making myself go. Least no hit by 10 I could leave and it may hit a good bit later in the day. But even with that, you then have to leave without a clue how the hit will be. I really had to go somewhere if I wanted a shot at seeing them, because there would be clouds at home. Looked like Badlands would be good. But it's 500 miles away or a 6 hour drive. One would really have to roll the dice.

So I get up and the coronal mass ejection hits before 9 a.m. Sigh. I thought to myself, this is going to be a long day of being annoyed at the space weather plots going crazy. I will drive myself nuts wishing it were dark. I then thought, well if I drive there, at least I can pass time and not have that issue as bad. But pretty good chance the storm would be over before dark. I talk myself out of these ideas all the time and usually wind up glad that I did. It's much like a far away storm chase day that has clouds or precip in the target area that morning. Often you are pretty sure the day is ruined, but you don't really know, so sometimes you just roll the dice and go to be safe. Then you are far from home later that day wishing so bad you'd have listened to yourself.

On this one I had already prepared all my stuff in the morning, only to see the flare arrive on plots in the middle of doing so. It quickly told me to back down and stay home. I then would think, but heck some big events would still have auroras going that much later(when it would be dark). I'd be annoyed if I didn't go and was at home under clouds if it was storming after dark. The negative to this flare, it was largely heading north of the planet. Positive was just how strong and long that radiation storm was going. Thought that flare really must have had a long strong stream behind it, if that was going so long. I then simply thought, I can just go and plan this like a simple trip to shoot star trails in the badlands, then have the upside be auroras if they happen.

I head out the door, repeatedly asking myself, "what are you doing?" I then say, "stop thinking and just go." If I do much of any thinking, I will not go. I thought, lets just take a stab at this one and roll the dice. It was a roll the dice trip, as I kept thinking that the whole way there. I also kept thinking, man this is stupid. One aspect is the drive, the other is the drive back when you stayed up the whole night. Hard to look forward to that when you have no real assurance of what will go down. And really thus far, the hit hadn't looked that crazy either. That wasn't helping. But once I go I go. Soon as I cross the river here I may as well be in the Badlands, as I won't turn back once on the road. Don't think I ever have.

My morning thoughts were that I should be in sun right now. I'm west of Chamberlain SD and wondering why the hell I just entered snow. I thought I'd be near the back edge of the cirrus by now and was rapidly becoming scared stratus and fog over the snowpack to the east was spreading west. I entered a wavy stratus canopy just before this. It all reminded me of when big storm complexes push out lots of cold air and create lots of low clouds behind them(usually killing mammatus views).

I clear the snow and see hands down the brightest sundog I've ever seen. This is it a little dimmer, after I got the 50mm on and took some shots while driving. You could see waves of precip still in the air in front of it. But it was astounding just how freaking vivid red this thing was at first. Perhaps a sign of things to come.

Really wet road with temps near freezing. I wanted off this before that sun set. I also have a lot of driving to do west to clear the worrisome clouds!

Clouds go away! Getting closer to Kadoka and I'm still in these damn clouds. The scenes were amazing through this though. I wished I was already at the park for sunset, but was so glad I was no later, as this road would soon suck.

Sun pillar. Snow, dogs, pillar so far.

In the park now, zodiacal light was pretty bright. It's going from the moon, through Venus and up towards some bright star high up. While trying to shoot some scenes before this, I get out of the car and while pulling the tripod legs down say to myself, "don't pull these out." I was in a hurry and these tripod legs suck, 2 have detached in the past. I didn't even pull them down hard and hear that noise, that "pooomph". Noooooooooooooo. I couldn't even get it back together, so I could at least use the other section to go up and down. Finally I get it at least together, but not holding and then search like mad for the electrical tape I thought I had in the car. Finally found it and went to town with the tape on that joint. Giottos, you and your plastic inner deal suck.

A moment of truth was also unfolding at this same time, as darkness was here. Were the auroras there or any sign of them? Wasn't like there was anything other than darkness to wait on to find out, since the cme had hit in the morning. No, not the slightest hint at even a weak aurora arc or glow. Ziltch. Cam wouldn't even pick anything up. Reality was readily setting in. I blew it lol. I was busting in the Badlands 6 hours from home(with good roads), and there were now crap roads to go back home on if I wanted to do so. I was going nowhere.

I start one star trail from Pinnacles Overlook. I sat there kicking myself as the cam recorded the trails.

After a while I head down into the park more and do another trail. I have this one lit up some, but looks better without that lit up frame. After doing these two trails, I sat highly unmotivated higher up to the east. Just sat in that parking lot looking north out my window, wishing I had not left home. I also wished the road was better, so if I wanted, I could start the drive back now. With no signs of auroras, after the cme had already arrived, it did not seem too likely any would happen. I thought there was maybe 1% chance at that point. Usually it goes from strong stuff, to glow arc, to very faint hard to pick up on camera, to nothing. Seems only time it spurts back up some is while still having some sign of them. There was nothing out there.

I eventually think, well I can't drive back right now, I'm here, I may as well do more trails. I was super unmotivated to do them though. I just wanted to sit in the car. I got more motivated when I noticed a good way to light the rocks and how damn cool it looked. If you are close to some that are close to each other, you can high beam one rock so it reflects lightly on the one you want to shoot. My car is facing right of frame here, brights on the rocks over there(out of frame). The shots were 800 ISO, F3.5, 30 seconds at 10mm.

I moved around the corner and did another one, same settings, but this time with a crazy visitor! I about crapped myself when this happened. I'm sitting in my car near the camera while it shoots the 30 second shots for the trail stack. I had the window down, just looking out. Then holy crap, the most amazing fireball comes down. I've seen shooting stars that leave the smoke trail after them. I've seen fireballs that leave a trail of breaking up pieces. I've seen ones that abruptly flash out at the end. Never have I seen one this nuts. Super super bright and repeatedly flashing brightly. You could see the flashing on the rocks and ground, it was lighting up everything. Consider this is ultrawide 10mm and it's not all in the frame.

This thing was amazing, and ummmmm, my camera was running, firing off star trail stacks in the general direction. The thing was, it hadn't run long enough for a trail yet. I wanted another 10 minutes. So I couldn't look yet to see if that was in the frame. I sat there in the car, looking over at the camera and trying to visualize if it was wide enough and pointed over enough to get that. I couldn't remember exactly what of the rock structure was all included in the frame when I set it up. I knew exactly where the fireball was though. So I could look up there and back to the camera over and over and think....omg I had to JUST miss that freaking fireball. Just like crazy close lightning bolts that are just out of frame. I felt half sick to my stomach, sitting there wondering if I got it and being pretty sure that I did not. It was a crazy enough sight when it happened, that right after it I had a bit of the heart in the throat thing going on. Just a quick, omg omg omg moment as it happened. Anyone that has tried to get photos of meteors knows how they love to not show up. You'd be certain it was bright enough, then look and see no sign of it it. Usually you have to zoom into a shot too. Often using a fast lens with real high ISO. That is freaking 10mm, 800ISO on a slow F3.5.

I wait the 10 minutes out, get out to check the camera for the moment of truth. The whole night I had my MP3 player on. For whatever reason I had taken them off after that. I get out to check the camera and hello, nearby coyotes start yapping away. Pretty creepy in there without that, pitch black and this dead end picnic area side road. I look at the camera and hello, got it! Or at least some of it. It's hard to explain how happy I was. I was expecting major let down. 10mm is damn wide. The lens is pointing so far left of that. It was hard to imagine it was not out of frame. It'll be a long time before I ever even see such a fireball again, if ever, and here I actually got much of it on the still....in/with the Badlands no less! Instantly this whole trip changed. I thought, holy crap the Badlands come through again.

Here is the as is jpg frame without the trail stack. Simply compare the brightness of that to the stars. Also in doing so, consider those stars had 30 seconds to expose. This did not. Many many times brighter than the brightest stars in the sky.

Figured after that didn't much matter what happens now.

It's pretty early morning now, around 3 a.m. I guess. Maybe 2, I don't know. When I was shooting this, sitting in my car, I began to notice....auroras. They start up there in that gap on the lower right. Wall SD was also in that direction and making some light, but this next to that I was pretty darn certain was auroras kicking in.

I run up top to the Pinnacles Overlook and this unfolds. I was...., omg omg omg again. I'm in the Badlands and auroras are kicking in. This has been pretty much a dream. But really a dream to get good auroras from the Badlands. But heck for a starter I will take any ol auroras there! It was around this time they posted on spaceweather.com the show was finally over, there'd be no more auroras. They had a good showing further north, like Norway, but nothing here. A small little sub-storm kicked in towards sunrise. I think what I saw was from around 3-5 a.m. central time.

I was going rather crazy standing there. Often you can get better phases come south once you have something, so that was a hope and probably half the reason for my crazy excitement now. That and at that point it was really about the last thing that I thought would happen, to get any after all that time of none. And I was in the Badlands. I had my MP3 player on and made sure to put on Exogenesis Symphony Pt 1: Overture by Muse. Being in the Badlands, completely alone(no cars all night), playing that song with auroras dancing to the north, eh, it's kinda hard to beat. I was running around that parking lot like a fool, hands in the air, having a moment. Having strong auroras might have been too much for a first Badlands with auroras experience lol. I will happily take these.

The problem with low horizon auroras there, is you can't get the structures with them then. It'd be crazy ops in there with higher up auroras. But I thought I'd try to do it anyway. This required driving back down into the rock structures and finding some place distant enough to get them with some rocks. The south road out of the park in there worked. It would come and go, pretty faint again in the above.

I would try and use my headlights briefly to show the rocks.

There was a lot of running around again, acting like a fool. It's so dark in there with no moon. Hearing anything at night with no visibility can be spooky, let alone closer packs of coyotes and the noises they make. I for damn sure would not have been running around on this road like I was if it weren't for the MP3 player. I would stop and think, wonder if anything is ready to chase me yet. I didn't care, so long as I had that MP3 player going and wouldn't hear coyote noises. Just sucks that anything you can't see in the dark can be spooky. Once something cool is happening though, then one doesn't care or worry as much. Soon I was like, hell coyotes, come on, lets party together here. Mountain Lions(which seem everywhere now) not so much.

The 10-22mm is back on now. I wish I had done more with it and less with the 50mm at F1.8. F1.8 just isn't friendly with stars. Like what you gain by a faster lens for the auroras, you lose more on really soft looking star blobs.

Had to do the trail. Imagine how epic it could be there with a big aurora event. Could do things from in the bigger cooler rock formation areas too.

It was really cool in there when it would glow brighter. That place is so other worldly to begin with.

Eventually the aurora mini sub-storm fades to about nothing. I had almost 2 hours till sunrise, so figured I could try an hour nap. This didn't work so well. I'd about be to sleep and get too cold. It was teens out here I think. I'd start the car back up, then off and try again. Something felt wrong about trying to sleep with it running there. The other part was my leg was resting on the plastic under the steering wheel and it would occasionally make a noise and I'd be alert again. I think I mustered a 10 minute nap in there. Sometimes it helps to just lay there and try, even if you can't fall asleep. I needed something before starting the drive back home. A drive I knew would take long, given the roads and snow advisory to the east.

I leave that spot and head east in the park, noting the mid-level deck of clouds over the area but clearing to the east. I wondered if they'd light up, but they were taking a while. The early early stuff didn't do much on them. I basically gave up on that sunrise idea and was making my way out to head home.

Then they lit up.

Was quickly sorta in shock yet again on this trip. Flat out amazing sunrise.

Starting to think it's hard to lose in the Badlands.

Usually the colors are junk after the sun is above the horizon, not this time. Crazy crazy and in all directions. I should probably include more images of this.

About to part ways with the Badlands now. Thank you Badlands!

Still trying to leave the Badlands. I thought these were just chillin up there, since there were always some on there, but then I noticed they were crossing it. There were 19 of them.

I decided to drive down to where they were crossing and was pretty surprised how little they cared I was there. They basically crossed the road like buffalo do in Yellowstone. Their backs were covered in frost. I'm not even zoomed in on the above. That is the 100mm end of the 100-400. I'm half sure I could have walked over to them.

Sigh. I knew where all that water was would suck now. Much of I90 was treated till here, just east of Murdo. Passed the salt truck and was like, ah crap. Ever since fishtailing and spinning off a se KS highway at 75mph, on what had been and still looked like dry pavement, I find it damn hard to drive much of any speed on roads that look or could be wet when the temp is near freezing at all, let alone a good bit below. That time it was such a freaking shock to have the back end come around like on butter, then the rest of the fun off the road, at that kinda speed. Can't shake the same thought when the roads are actually visibly uncertain. So my drive home sucked bad.

Well east now, east of Mitchell, where I entered the freezing fog still in place. It was damn windy from the south right now and temps below freezing. People were flying on this though. I thought, yeah no, below freezing air blowing over this on strong south winds, screw going over 60. Before this back in the sun/cirrus it was even colder out. A whole long stretch, no one wanted anything to do with the left lane. I'd go 55-60 and eventually someone would come up on me, usually not very fast themselves. Then they'd not want to go around on that lane. I'd hit even slower people and have to use it myself. It sucked. You're on it saying to yourself, "what is this what is this." It looked far less like liquid than the above.

3 days later and I'm still yawning.