Monthly Archives: December 2008

Shooting for the stars — Kenai teacher in the running to become NASA astronaut


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Like many kids growing up in the Apollo era, Allan Miller wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Somewhere along the line of adolescence, college, adulthood, kids and careers, most give up that dream and make peace with being earthbound.

Not Miller. At 45, he’s getting another chance at outer space.

“I’ve always been fascinated by space,” Miller said. “My earliest memory is sitting on my dad’s lap, watching Neil Armstrong land and walk on the moon.”

The Kenai Middle School science teacher spent last week in Houston at the Johnson Space Center undergoing interviews and rigorous physical, psychological and intelligence testing to determine if he’ll be picked for NASA’s astronaut program. He and 4,000 other hopefuls applied for the program in July, and Miller made the cut down to the 120 selected for the interview stage. They’re being brought to Houston in batches of 20.

“I didn’t even think they’d give me a second look when I applied. I was very surprised when they gave me a call,” Miller said. “I lost 28 pounds because I don’t want to present myself as an overweight 45-year-old. I’m doing my best youthful impression. Anything to hide the wrinkles.”

Of the 450 astronauts in history, three were 45 or older, Miller said. But even so, he’s got some marks in his favor. For one thing, he’s already been through the selection process. He applied during the last round of applications in 2003 and also made it to the physical examination stage before NASA disqualified him because testing showed abnormalities with his eyes.

Tests since then show the abnormality was benign, and he was invited to apply again.

“Anytime NASA sees something they don’t understand medically, you’re out of the game entirely. It turns out I was just born with big optical nerves, bigger than most. They decided I just have weird eyeballs,” he said.

Being a military pilot is no longer the most direct route to becoming an astronaut, which is good for Miller because his early aspirations of joining the Air Force were squashed by his poor, 20/100 vision. Nowadays, NASA considers doctors, scientists, engineers and even teachers who can inspire the next generation of astronauts.

“When I walked into it five years ago, the most shocking part of it was to meet the other 19 people down there. I was just so humbled and feeling inadequate,” Miller said of the cancer researcher, Navy test pilot, people with multiple doctorate degrees and scientists in obscure fields of study who were in his interview group.

“You almost needed a translator when you asked, ‘What do you do?’ I spend my day hanging with seventh-graders. I just look at myself and go, ‘Why am I here?’ But they know who they’ve invited, and for whatever reason, I’m worth the recall.”

Miller speaks Russian, after teaching English in the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1988, teaching Russian at Skyview High School for six years, and being a translator for the Russian biathlon team in the 2002 Winter Olympics (he’s also been a cross-country ski and biathlon coach) and for an exchange program between Alaska and Magadan, Russia. That skill would be useful on the International Space Station working with its Russian inhabitants.

And he’s got a science background. Miller worked with the National Science Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., and participated in a research trip to Antarctica two years ago.

Since his last go-around with NASA in 2003, Miller has been actively involved with bringing outer space down to Earth in the classroom. When he taught at Sterling Elementary, prior to his sabbatical with the National Science Foundation, he established it as a NASA Explorer School, which opened up a host of projects in which students could participate. At Kenai Middle, where he teaches now, he just finished a project where students linked with the International Space Station and took pictures of Earth.

“The neat thing about NASA is they really have the corner on the market of inspiration,” Miller said. “What’s more inspiring than rockets?”

Science comes to life when it’s not just from a textbook, he said. Instead of reading about cells and cytoplasm on a page, he has students do a project simulating NASA’s Phoenix Mission, which put a lander on Mars to look for signs of life. So many of the advancements the space program has made seemed like science fiction 15 years ago, so it’s exciting to learn about new technologies and discoveries as they’re happening, Miller said.

“I just want kids to come away with an awe and wonder of science,” he said.

That’s a large part of Miller’s motivation for pursuing the astronaut program — he’s learning a lot that he can take back to the classroom.

“My passion is kids and education. For me, it’s just another part of being a good teacher,” he said.

NASA will continue its interview and testing process through the end of January and select 40 to 50 candidates to move on to the next round. From those, 10 to 15 will be picked for the astronaut program, Miller said.

The mission they’d be involved in includes spending three to six months on the International Space Station doing human physiological research to find out how to combat problems astronauts face when spending long periods of time in space, like bone and muscle loss from being in zero G, radiation exposure, immune system issues, and discovering ways to recycle water and grow food in space. Solving those issues would help make a manned mission to Mars possible.

If Miller is selected, he and his family — wife, Joan, and kids Xander, 9, Mackenzie, 7, and Sasha, 3 — would move to Houston. He’d spend four to five years training before flying a mission to space sometime in 2013 or 2014. Joan has been wonderfully supportive of him pursuing his dream, Miller said, and their kids are getting used to the idea.

“The big worry at this point is how much hockey is there in Texas. That’s the crisis decision,” Miller said. “They’re excited about it, but at the same time, it’s change. … The thought of Dad sitting on top of 7 million pounds of thrust is scary, and that comes with great risk.”

Miller said he wants to show his kids that some risks are worth taking if it means following your dreams.

“I think it’s a good life lesson. Sometimes life opens opportunities for you and you walk through the door,” he said.

He’s also prepared to show them how to make the best of things when they don’t work out as planned.

“This is so far from selected. It’s just a very, very remote chance,” he said. “It’s an honor to get to this level, especially to be there a second time. It could turn out to be nothing more than a wonderful pat on the back from NASA, and thank you for the time and some sunshine in December.

“If it doesn’t happen, sure, I’ll be disappointed, but so many things have happened in pursuit of those goals that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

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Imagination blasts off — Special guests spark interest in science


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Middle School students had some auspicious guests in class Friday, all the way from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, including their own teacher.

“I see you, Mr. Miller!” a few voices piped up as the videoconference link was established, letting the students see their science teacher, Allan Miller, and Miller see the 50 students in his classroom.

Miller was in Texas last week undergoing interviews and testing for NASA’s astronaut program. He’s one of 120 from a field of 4,000 applicants still under consideration in the nearly yearlong application cycle. NASA is in the process of winnowing that batch down to 40 or 50 by bringing them to Houston in groups of 20 for interviews. By spring, 10 to 15 will be picked to be the next astronauts.

Miller rounded up some of his fellow applicants and others he met at the Johnson Space Center to talk to his students back in Alaska. They each told a little about their backgrounds, if they were applicants, or their jobs for NASA if they worked there. Then the students got to ask questions. True to middle school form, the students had a few curveballs for their guests.

“Would people say you’re cool?” was a question for an astronaut in training, who will fly a mission to the International Space Station in February.

The answer came with a laugh: “I have a 13-year-old back home who would probably say, ‘No way.’”

Students also wanted to know how long training takes before going to space (2.5 to three years), how big the International Space Station is (each of the seven or eight modules is the size of a school bus) and how astronauts train to do spacewalks (practice in a swimming pool).

A professor from Stanford University talked about his research trips around the world and the different opportunities students have for research and study with NASA, including a recent test of worms and bacteria from toilets sent into space.

He’s taught at the college and elementary school level, and said younger students are his favorite to talk to, “Because you guys actually pay attention.”

“Do you mean that, or are you just saying that to make us feel better?” a student wanted to know.

Two Navy jet pilots were a big hit with the students and got several questions about the kinds of jets they fly, how they got to be pilots and if they like flying jets.

“Absolutely. It definitely beats working for a living,” one of them said.

Another candidate talked about his job building satellites and his history playing football at Purdue University, a medical doctor told students he wished he had a teacher like Mr. Miller when he was their age, and a scientist with a doctorate degree told them how much he enjoyed going to school:

“How would you feel if, by the time you graduated from high school, you were only halfway done with school?”

Miller did a slide show of photos from Mission Control and other areas of the space center, and some shots of the tests he underwent, including one of him in shorts undergoing body measurements.

“Sorry about that. You really didn’t want to see that image, did you?” he said.
The final speaker was a mechanical engineer specializing in robotics that Miller had met when he applied for the astronaut program five years ago.

He showed students how far robotic hands have come over the years and showed some robots developed for space missions. The robots included “Robonaut,” a humanoid figure; a flying camera reminiscent of a training device Luke Skywalker fought in the original “Star Wars” movie; and “Spidernaut,” with eight legs to distribute its weight so it could walk on delicate surfaces.

His current project is designing wheels for rovers being developed for missions on the moon and Mars.

“What is the first robot you ever built?” a student asked.

“If you count Legos, then Legos,” he answered. After that, it was a version of Robonaut.

After a half hour, it was time for students to participate in a school fire drill, and Miller to get back to attempting to become an astronaut. But that doesn’t mean he stopped being a teacher.

He signed off with a yes or no question that would determine whether he assigned homework over Christmas break:

“Who wants to be a scientist or engineer when they get older?”

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Many reasons to celebrate — Kindergarten class learns Hanukkah holiday traditions


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Lisa Cotler was going to school in Cincinnati, December meant Santa Claus and Christmas carols, and getting teased because those things weren’t part of her Jewish family’s holiday traditions.

“I was one of two or three people in my class who were Jewish. We were very singled out and made fun of. They never acknowledged differences in religion,” she said.

So when Cotler’s son’s kindergarten teacher invited Cotler and the other Jewish parent in class to help with a Hanukkah activity, she was thrilled.

“For me, as a mother, it’s wonderful because my mom wasn’t able to have that opportunity and see that because our schools didn’t do that,” she said. “When I walked in there, they were shouting, ‘We’re going to have Hanukkah today, we’re going to have Hanukkah today.’”

Sharon Harris joined Cotler in presenting Hanukkah activities for Eileen Bryson’s kindergarten class at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science on Dec. 16.

“Mrs. Bryson always has fun stuff in her class,” Harris said. “There’s always something that’s going on in the classroom. Kids at that age are so much fun because they’re very open to everything and very interested in learning.”

Bryson said she tries to incorporate all the kids’ backgrounds and traditions into class.

“I’ve been doing it for, oh, probably 12 to 15 years, actually. I just feel like it’s really important for children to be exposed to different cultures and different experiences. If people are open to that, I feel like that’s a wonderful tradition, along with everything else. Kids really love it. It makes them open to thinking of different ways of celebrating.”

Her classes have learned about Hanukkah and Kwanza, and she’s invited kids’ relatives from other countries to help with activities, like making a piñata and corn tortillas with a girl’s grandmother from Nicaragua.

“We always have people from different groups in class. We almost always bring them in to talk about what it’s like in their home, in the country they came from or wherever, and usually cook and do something food-related with them,” Bryson said.

On Dec. 16, Bryson read the class a book about a little girl who didn’t have her own hanukiah, also called a menorah, so her grandfather helped her make one out of potatoes. Harris and her daughter, Isabelle, and Cotler and her son, Seth, showed the class their families’ hanukiahs, and talked about what they mean, where the tradition comes from and how they are lit for eight nights.

Bryson said the class had dipped their own candles earlier, so it was a nice tie-in to the Hanukkah event.

Harris and Cotler helped the class make latkes, which are potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

“We’re going to make lattes?” one student asked.

Bryson said that incorporating food into class is a great way to hold kids’ attention.

“I think anything hands-on, cooking or anything like that, they like it. They just need to be involved one way or another,” she said.

One of Harris’ friends that she met when she spent five years in Israel sent dreidels for Harris to give to the students. She explained what the Hebrew letters painted on each side of the four-sided top meant, and how you play the game. Each player usually has a pile of gelt, which is Yiddish for money, that is actual coins or, more often, coin-shaped chocolates. The kindergartners played with stacks of interlocking building pieces.

Harris explained the game. To start each round, players put a piece of gelt into a central pile. One player spins the dreidel and does whatever is dictated by the letter on which it lands. “Hey,” for instance, means “half,” so the player takes half the pot of gelt. “Nun” means none, so it’s the next person’s turn.

“I think it was really nice. I mean, with 5-year-olds it’s difficult to hold their attention for long periods of times,” Harris said. “I think especially the dreidel game was fun for them. It utilized some of their early math training.”

And it was fun for Isabelle and Seth to share their traditions with their classmates.

“She was just really happy to share with the other kids, and they’re happy to learn,” Harris said. “That’s the thing that’s good about Kaleidoscope, they’re very open to all holidays and customs. Isabelle, for one, likes to learn about all different things. That’s kind of what makes that school special.”

“I think that Seth felt very good about it,” Cotler said. “I don’t want to say he felt special, because I don’t think that was the intention. I think he was able to express to the other children, in 6-year-old terms, why it is that we do what we do.”

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Home from war for the holidays — Siblings return from Afghanistan, Iraq to spend Christmas with family

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The Kauffman family celebrates a special Christmas this year — Tavia and Travis are home from Afghanistan and Iraq, where they’ve been serving in the Marines.

The two eldest of the Kauffman siblings have served several missions after each joined in different years. Cpl. Tavia Kauffman, who graduated from Homer High in 2003, is stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., and joined the Marines in 2005. Sgt. Travis Kauffman, a Homer 2002 graduate, finished his last Iraqi mission Nov. 6. He signed up with the Marines a few days before the Sept. 11 attack in 2001.

“My friends said, after that attack, you are so unfortunate,” Travis recalls.

Through the years, the holiday season saw either Travis or Tavia return, but seldom both of them together. Charles and Carolyn Kauffman have two younger children as well, Ryan, 17, and Heidi, 13.

“It’s been a good Christmas already just having them back,” said their dad, Charles Kauffman. “We basically hang out together — their grandmother is with us, too. We planned on cross-country (skiing) and going ice fishing.”

With both young people involved in the war effort for several years now, the worry can weigh heavily on their parents.

“There’s a lot we don’t hear about until it’s after the fact,” Charles said.

Tavia is one of only about 140 “loadmasters” in the entire Marine Corps, whose role is loading C-130J Hercules. Each mission takes a reconfiguration of the cargo space in the belly of the aircraft. The Marines in charge of that space are known as loadmasters, and they are responsible for everything behind the cabin.

Becoming a loadmaster is no easy task. Training takes about two years, making it one of the longest training periods in the Marine Corps, Tavia said. She is a loadmaster with VMGR-252, Detachment A.

“Our job literally takes us to the ends of the earth and back. Who could ask for more?” Tavia was quoted as saying in a Marine Corps, publication.

Tavia recently completed a nine-month mission in Afghanistan.

Travis was part of a reconnaissance unit that made the initial invasion into Iraq after two years of training. His unit goes behind enemy lines to do enemy surveillance, conduct raids or do sweeps to find bombs and weapons caches. He also worked in villages on stabilization and support operations.

Travis can be recalled to Iraq, since he is in the reserve forces, though he feels it might be unlikely.

“You have to be mentally prepared,” he said.

The two say they came independently to the conclusion they wanted to join the Marines, though they had a lot in common that made them feel ready for the military.
Growing up in Homer, the Kauffman siblings gained a lot of experiences that made them grounded. For one thing, they credit being blessed with great parents who instilled in them strong spirituality. For another, they grew up being “outdoorsy” and athletic.

“I worked three seasons in Bristol Bay on a fishing boat. You get sleep deprivation, you’re starving sometimes. I’ve been put in so many crazy circumstances on other jobs — it’s good training for the military,” Travis said.

“We see people who want to be part of something larger — who want the Marines to make them amazing. We come from a strong, grounded background, raised here, and people remark how grounded we seem,” he said. “I think we’re really blessed we come from that kind of a foundation.”

“If your identity is solid, not much will shake you, even in the military,” Tavia adds.
The siblings haven’t served in the same units or missions, and often they are out of touch with one another for brief periods. On e-mail, they use a cryptic way of talking to each other, yet they remain close, both said. While being interviewed, they finish each other’s sentences.

As for worry and anxiety about how the other was faring in the midst of war in separate countries, “I didn’t worry too much,” Tavia said. “God can take care of Travis better than I can by worrying about him.”

Tavia is planning on a medical career when her tour of duty is up in 2010. She would like to be a doctor. Travis plans on flying helicopters. But for now, the Kauffmans are relaxing in their Alaska style — they’re heading out in a blizzard Tuesday to go skiing.

“It’s already been a good Christmas,” Tavia said. “It’s just good to see everyone and be home.”

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Column: Shouldering a burden to lighten the load

Debbie Clonan is funny. That’s the first thing I noticed about her.

She’s witty and quick, observant and animated. If she’s got an opinion — and she usually does — she voices it; if something strikes her as funny — which is most of the time — she shares it.

That’s not to say she’s lacking in social graces — far from it. You don’t end up with a husband as wonderful or teenagers as pleasant and friendly as hers are without displaying those qualities yourself.

But she isn’t one to hold her tongue. That’s what impressed me about her.

She’s all personality, and she lays it out there for anyone to see. If something touches her, she expresses it, if something impresses her, she praises it, and if something ticks her off, you know it.

And cancer most definitely ticks her off.

“It sucks rocks,” she once said about cancer in an interview about the importance of getting mammograms.

Debbie has been through all of it — tests, surgery, radiation and chemo, drugs to combat the cancer and drugs to combat the side effects from the drugs to combat the cancer. She’s got stories that would make your toenails curl, turn black and fall off.

She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in December 2005, from her very first mammogram at age 41. Her tumor had soft edges, so it wasn’t detectable by touch. Her family doesn’t have a strong history of breast cancer. There was no good reason to think she may have had cancer. But cancer doesn’t listen to reason.

That’s why it’s so vital to get tested. Even if you don’t think you have it. Even if you statistically shouldn’t have it. Especially if you’re terrified you have it.

“I recommend that everybody get tested,” she said. “If you think something is weird, don’t give up until you have a real, determined answer. You know your own body. If you feel funny, don’t let them blow you off because you’re in your 30s or don’t have a family history of cancer. Get tested.”

This is a woman who speaks her mind, stands up, puts her foot down, does what she thinks is right and isn’t anybody’s doormat. And suddenly, her life wasn’t her own anymore. It was dominated by test results, treatments, medication, side effects and statistics. She went from taking care of her husband, kids, pets, parents and pantheon of friends to needing care herself.

Debbie’s response was to open her arms to cancer. Not to accept it, or “make peace with it,” or in any way condone that she had to be afflicted by it. More like to embrace it head on, so she could get a good grip around its neck and beat the livin’ snot out of it.

The amount of research she’s done would put a med student to shame. She’s been through every recommended treatment and course of medication, and soldiered through all the nasty side effects that come from them. Through it all she’s kept up her mission to be the “mammogram police,” encouraging everyone to get tested, and to help others make it through a cancer diagnosis. That’s what I most respect about her.

Even when Deb was sick, she’d call to see how my mom was doing when she was in treatment, or to ask if there was anything she could do to help another friend whose mom had cancer. She had “Stupid cancer!” buttons made up, and has helped make the Kenai Peninsula Relay for Life event the top fundraiser in the state.

Part of her support comes through humor, helping people laugh at a situation they don’t otherwise know how to deal with. Among her many helpful tips: Don’t tell someone with cancer, especially undergoing chemo, that they look “great.”

“What the hell did I look like before?” she said.

Or if you’re going to express your love and support through food, try to be creative.
“Don’t bring lasagna, because everyone brings lasagna.”

Debbie is about much more than cancer. She’s an outdoorsy girl, having grown up in Sterling with a horse field on the family’s property. She’s a talented writer who can project her voice as loud and clear on paper as well as she can in person.

She used to write the Sterling column for the Peninsula Clarion’s Neighbors section. She often used the venue as a platform to support kids in the community, especially being a mom, herself, and a library aide at Sterling Elementary School. She’d interview kids, talk about interesting things going on in the school, publicize 4-H projects and find myriad other ways to point out good things about the area’s youth.

I saw Deb on Friday. She wasn’t up for much conversation, but what she did say spoke volumes about her and what she values most in life. She talked about her girls, how they were having an orchestra concert that night, and how they did such a good job decorating the house for Christmas. She talked about her husband, how he was going to put the finishing touches — including a stained glass star she made herself — on the 17-foot tree when he got home from work. Her parents. Her pets. Kids in general, and how there needs to be more for them to do in the community.

That’s a woman with her priorities straight. That’s a woman who shoulders what “sucks” in life in order to lighten the load of others carrying the same burden.

That’s what I’ll always remember about her.

Merry Christmas, Deb.

Jenny Neyman is the editor/publisher of the Redoubt Reporter.

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Guest editorial: Many hands made light work of Crooked Creek project

With over 61 miles of direct stream and riparian habitat, Crooked Creek, in Kasilof, is one of the longest anadromous streams on the Kenai Peninsula.

It is a major tributary of the Kasilof River, and supports spawning and rearing for substantial runs of chinook and coho salmon and one of the northernmost steelhead runs, as well as migratory bird habitat.

During a flood in 2002, a road crossing the creek near the Crooked Creek facility washed out. For several years following the flood, the area was left with very steep, unstable and unvegetated loose gravel stream banks. This is a very popular community use area because it is one of the few public access areas for viewing spawning chinook salmon on the Kenai Peninsula. This site is also listed in several publications encouraging visitors to view fish in the creek. Community members and travelers are seen in significant numbers. After Aug. 1, it’s heavily used for fishing.

As the need for a restoration project grew, so did the interest of community members, various agencies and local elementary students. The Tustumena Elementary School sixth-grade Adopt-a-Stream program had been active in research work at Crooked Creek for 10 years. Students visited the creek monthly and were interested in partnering with the community and other groups to take on this project.

The Kenai Watershed Forum was granted funds from several agencies to attend to the needs of Crooked Creek. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ConocoPhilips all contributed money to accomplish the project goals of stabilizing the stream bank, creating a study/monitoring area for students, protecting habitat and improving fishermen and visitor access.

The KWF was to serve as the facilitator to bring all the parties together to work for these common goals. A coalition was organized, including KWF, Tustumena students and parents, Crooked Creek landowners, Kasilof area residents and business owners, local government leaders and staff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The first matter of business was to bring the community and agencies with a stake in the restoration together. A community planning meeting was held at the Tustumena school in fall 2007, and a site visit was organized with all parties and agencies.

An older student from the area was looking for an Eagle Scout project and approached the watershed forum about adopting the Crooked Creek viewing platform portion of the project. Keith Clancy applied for and received all the appropriate permits. He was instrumental in securing the final design, and put a work crew together for the installation of a new, elevated study platform.

Throughout the planning and restoration stage of work, the students at Tustumena helped support the program. Classroom education continued with testing the waters of Crooked Creek through the Adopt-a-Stream program. Students organized and executed a creek cleanup day, and researched platforms, walkways and habitat restoration techniques. They designed and installed signs to educate the community and visitors about Crooked Creek, explaining how to help protect the area, respect wildlife and “leave no trace.”

Other agencies stepped in with time and materials to help make this project a success. Adjacent trails were improved by Fish and Game, improving visitor fishing and view access. DOT peeled back the original road and a visitor parking area with guardrails was established.

From the beginning, one of the focuses of the project was to bring the community together with various agencies to provide a successful restoration project that would enhance the Tustumena area and Crooked Creek. With the driving force of the Adopt-a-Stream students — known as Tustumena Streamkeepers — and their parents, the project moved forward and involved all the necessary parties.

Although huge steps have been made in making this former flood washout a desirable place to view spawning salmon and other wildlife, there is still more work to come.
KWF looks to complete the project during summer 2009 with installation of permanent viewing signs, further improvements to trails and another viewing platform. And Marathon Oil has come on board with a financial donation to the project. Our streambeds, creeks and watersheds are valuable assets to our communities. We are fortunate to have an abundance of support from the schools, residents, merchants, government agencies and private corporations to protect these critical habitat areas.

Rhonda Orth is the accounting and office manager at the Kenai Watershed Forum.

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No glow — Low point in sunspot cycle means little chance of Northern Lights


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Clear night skies are a trade-off in Alaska. They make for frigidly cold temperatures, but they also make it possible to see one of the most colorful perks to living in the North — the aurora borealis.

Except this year. When it’s clear, it’s just cold, with little chance of getting a light show.

Aurora displays are caused by sunspots — magnetic storms on the sun. Sunspots produce particles — mostly electrons and protons — called solar wind, that shoot out toward Earth. When solar wind particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, it can cause light emissions as the particles slam into the atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

Sunspot activity runs on an 11-year cycle, with some years being active, and some not so much. This would be a not-so-much year.

Andy Veh, professor of astronomy and physics at Kenai Peninsula College Kenai River Campus, said the sunspot cycle was at its maximum activity level in 2000 and 2001, and will be most active again in 2010 and 2011. But 2006 through 2008 is the low point in the cycle.

“Right now it’s, well, if you get a clear night, which are few and far between, and then you look, if it’s not there, it’s not there. If you have good luck, then it’s there. I have to admit I didn’t see any last year. This year, maybe one, I’m not sure. If they don’t move a lot, it’s tough to distinguish them from high clouds,” Veh said.

But just because the northern lights are a no-show this winter, doesn’t mean people should ignore the night sky. There are plenty of other reasons to look up.

“Instead of looking at the aurora, I noticed that Venus is out,” Veh said. “I was surprised when I saw it. I thought it was too far below the horizon in Alaska, but it’s really nice. It’s really bright when you’re driving at night to the south.”

When clear skies do happen at night, Veh recommends taking advantage of them.
“Astronomy is really hard in Alaska. It has to be really cold in order to get clear skies. So every other week we get a couple of nice nights,” he said. “The winter sky is nice because when they’re out, the brightest stars are in the winter.”

Orion, Taurus and Gemini are plenty bright and visible to the naked eye. Saturn can also be seen this time of year, rising after midnight in the east.

The Geminids meteor shower was covered by clouds last week, but the Quadrantids meteor shower may be visible to early risers on Jan. 4. Watch the sky around 6 a.m. for streaks of lights.

A good viewing spot away from man-made lights makes it easier to appreciate nature’s night lights. Veh said traveling on the Sterling Highway toward the mountains offers some dark pullouts that are good for stargazing. In town, Bridge Access Road is a decent spot, although passing traffic can interfere.

“The Kenai beach, as far as accessibility is concerned, the beach is good because you have a free view to the west and south, which you don’t have anywhere else,” he said.

Just don’t forget your mittens, since clear nights this time of year usually mean temperatures at or below zero.

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