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Here's How To See The Northern Lights (You Have Another Chance Tonight)

By Kelly Bauer | September 7, 2017 12:16pm
 The lakefront could be the best place in Chicago to look for the northern lights on Thursday night.
The lakefront could be the best place in Chicago to look for the northern lights on Thursday night.
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DOWNTOWN — The northern lights could be visible from the Chicago area again on Thursday — but you'll need to prep for the best chance of seeing it.

Mark Subbarao, an astronomer with the Adler Planetarium, said he's only been able to see the northern lights once from Chicago. It's not terribly uncommon for the northern lights to reach to the city, he said, but it is "pretty challenging" to actually see them.

That's because the city and surrounding suburbs have tall buildings and light pollution that can block out them out, Subbarao said.

Another challenge for those trying to watch on Thursday night: The forecast calls for clouds in Chicago, which could obscure the aurora borealis, Subbarao said. There's also a nearly full moon that will brighten up the sky — a bad thing if you're trying to look at the lights.

"The moon and the clouds are gonna be our enemy on this one," Subbarao said.

But the lights coming through on Thursday night are expected to be more intense than usual, which could help out Chicagoans turning their eyes to the sky.

"This is an unusually powerful one," Subbarao said. That could make for a "pretty good opportunity" for viewers.

For the best shot at catching the aurora, you'll want to head away from the city's lights and buildings. That could mean heading out to the lakefront, where Subbarao has gone for viewing, or even into the suburbs. Be warned, though: Even the suburbs have light pollution that can make it difficult to view the aurora.

Look for a place with clear, dark skies, Subbarao said, and check out the forecast. Wait until at least an hour after sunset to start your serious viewing, and look north for the lights.

"Try to find the darkest spot you can," Subbarao said. "You'll see this sort of greenish glow. ... It's unlikely to be [the] sort of very clear, wispy bands you get in those sort of wonderful photographs just because we're a little far south for that.

"But seeing it at all is pretty cool."

If you can't spot the lights, Subbarao has another suggestion: Grab your eclipse glasses from last month's eclipse and look up at the sun once it's daylight. The sun has been "really active," he said, and sun spots will be visible even without the help of a telescope.

"It's pretty spectacular," Subbarao said. "It's one of the most interesting-looking suns I've seen."