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Aurora plus comet: Double delight in the skies above

Pasi Hakala

Comet PanSTARRS twinkles amid the glow of the northern lights over Lempaala in central Finland on March 17.



The skies were lit up with glowing auroral displays as well as the twinkle of Comet PanSTARRS over the weekend, and a few skywatchers could see both celestial phenomena at once. One of those lucky few happened to be Pasi Hakala, an astronomer at the University of Turku's Tuorla Observatory in Finland.


"I was preparing to take some pictures of Comet PanSTARRS (just as a hobby, even if I'm a professional astronomer) with my camera ... as the aurora appeared right next to it," Hakala said in an email. He said this picture was taken with "an old Olympus E-330 plus a legacy, fast Konica 57mm f/1.2 lens" — which just goes to show that you don't need the latest, greatest camera to take a great picture of the night sky.

It's also true that you don't need to be in Finland to get a great view of the aurora. This weekend's geomagnetic storm was so strong and sweeping that the northern lights were seen as far south as Colorado. "We generally only get to see auroras this far south of the Arctic Circle a few times a decade, when the sun is near the peak of its 11-year sunspot cycle," Jimmy Westlake, an astronomy professor at Colorado Mountain College, wrote in a column for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Check out Westlake's photo and more views of the northern lights and Comet PanSTARRS below.

Jimmy Westlake

Colorado Mountain College's Jimmy Westlake captured this view of the aurora behind the twin stone monoliths of Rabbit Ears Peak near Steamboat Springs, Colo. The picture was taken early March 17, "during the wee hours of St. Patrick's Day morning," using a Nikon D700 camera with 50mm lens at f/3.8, 30-second exposure at ISO 6400. As for Comet PanSTARRS: "Colorado has had one storm after another" over the past week, Westlake said, but he has seen the comet through holes in the clouds on three different nights. Check out Westlake's comet shot on SpaceWeather.com.

C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS setting from x-f on Vimeo. User x-f jokes that this video, captured on March 17 from Sigulda, Latvia, was "spoiled by an aurora."

Aurora Borealis in Abisko National Park, March 17, 2013, from Lights Over Lapland on Vimeo. "The combination of the auroras and a beautiful moon halo created a spectacular scene in the sky above Abisko National Park," Chad Blakley, the photographer behind Lights Over Lapland, wrote in an email. "If I am lucky we will get a few more nice displays before the midnight sun returns and steals the stage from the northern lights until they return in September. It has been an incredible season, and I am hopeful that the predictions about a double-peaked solar maximum will continue to provide us with powerful displays."

Chris Cook

Photographer Chris Cook and his son watch Comet PanSTARRS from First Encounter Beach in Eastham, Mass., on the evening of March 13. The photograph was taken via remote shutter release, using a Canon 5D and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens. The image served as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day for Monday. Even though PanSTARRS has passed its peak brightness, the comet can still be seen by Northern Hemisphere observers after sunset in the western sky.

Submitted by Christoph Malin / FirstPerson

Christoph Malin sent in this picture of Comet PanSTARRS via NBC News' FirstPerson photo upload page. The comet was seen during the Imaging Expedition of the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck, which went to the 10,000-foot-high (3,050-meter-high) Gaislachkogel Mountain in Ötztal, Austria. Check out this Vimeo clip, and look down below for links to more night-sky views submitted via FirstPerson and Twitter,

More photos of the aurora and the comet:

More about auroras and comets:


Tip o' the Log to @dorisig and @imycomic.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log and the rest of NBCNews.com's science and space coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.