How to spot the Aurora Australis
It’s possible to spot the Aurora Australis by luck, but your chances are vastly improved with a little preparation.
Location, location, location
The further south you are, the more likely you’ll glimpse the Aurora Australis. But it’s just as important to have minimal light pollution, as well as an unobscured view of the southern horizon.
Within Melbourne, Cockman recommends Rickett’s Point in Beaumaris (“Probably the best site in Melbourne to have a look for the Aurora Australis”) because of its clear, south-facing view and lack of light pollution.
Further afield, he also notes Portsea, Queenscliff and Cape Schanck as good aurora-spotting options, as well as anywhere on the state’s southern coastline.
Know what to look for
If asked to picture an aurora, you might think of a starry night sky with undulating waves of green, red, pink, blue and purple.
While that’s an accurate representation, auroras can also look a lot more subdued if there’s only a small amount of solar wind.
“If it's a moderate display, you may expect to see a sort of a whitish band fairly low down to the south... and you might see some beams of light coming up from the horizon into the sky. If it’s a particularly good display you may start to see some colours.”
If you think you’ve spotted an aurora but can’t quite see the colours, Cockman recommends taking a photograph. “The colours will come out very easily in a digital photo of the display, [with] better colours than what the eye can see.”
Time it right
Much like the Earth has seasons, the Sun also goes through a cycle of sorts. The difference is that the solar cycle takes around 11 years in total and measures the number of sunspots on the Sun’s surface.
The period that has the peak number of sunspots is called ‘solar maximum’ and features increased levels of ions being ejected out into space and towards the Earth – where they can create auroras.
“We're heading towards the solar maximum around perhaps the end of 2024, early 2025,” says Cockman, meaning we’re potentially coming into a peak period for auroras.
Auroras can be seen year-round, but they often increase around the annual spring and autumn equinoxes.
“That is simply due to the fact that the Earth's magnetic field is better aligned with the solar wind during those times of the year,” Cockman says.
Check the space weather forecast
Solar wind is a type of ‘space weather’. Just like regular weather, you can look up the space weather forecast on the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to see how much solar activity is predicted, helping you determine if it’s a good night to go aurora hunting.
You’ll also want to check the regular weather forecast, as it’s more difficult to see an aurora in heavily clouded skies.