You Can Get a Better View of the Northern Lights With Your Phone

You Can Get a Better View of the Northern Lights With Your Phone

In addition to being visually stunning, the appeal of the Northern Lights also has to do with their unpredictability. Even with the most advanced technology, it can be difficult for forecasters to pinpoint precisely when and where the colorful displays in the sky will be seen until shortly before the show begins. On top of everything else, there’s the weather, and the fact that a few too many clouds could turn what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle into spending hours in the bitter cold for no reason.

While there’s nothing you can do about the weather, if you happen to be in a location where the Northern Lights were forecasted to be visible, but you can’t see a thing—or can maybe barely make out something in the distance—your phone might be able to help, according to an expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).

How to use your phone to see the Northern Lights

To clarify, you can’t just walk outside on any clear night, anywhere in the world, and capture images of the Northern Lights with your phone. This only works when a potential aurora display was forecasted in your area, or slightly to the north of it.

According to Brent Gordon, chief of the space weather services branch for the SWPC, developments in smartphone technology have improved their ability to capture images of the Northern Lights. “With some of the recent events, we’ve been seeing some amazing aurora images as far as south Texas and even a couple down in Central America—things that the human eye can’t see,” he said in media briefing call on May 10.

No special skills are required: Simply aim your phone at the sky, and snap a picture. “You may be surprised when you look at that image later—there might be a nice little treat there for you,” Gordon says.

That said, the goal here isn’t to produce high-level photos of the aurora display. In this scenario, your phone is acting more like a telescope than a camera, helping you see something you otherwise couldn’t.

Why can phones see the Northern Lights when we can’t? Simply put, “cell phones are much better than our eyes at capturing light,” Gordon says. “Because they’re much more tuned to a visible wavelength than our eyes are, that’s how we’re seeing these images the aurora so far south.”


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