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Published: November 28th 2015
Kiruna is a good place to visit if you wish to see the enigmatic lights in the sky known as the aurora.
Space exploration, iron mining and aurora watching
A few weeks ago I, Ake that is, had the chance to go on a business trip to the town Kiruna in northern Sweden. The main purpose was to visit a few research centres. But I also managed to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing as a bonus. Actually visiting those research centres was not only very educating and informative but also very fun. So the entire visit in Kiruna was good and enjoyable.
Kiruna has around 20,000 inhabitants and is situated in the far north of Sweden. Kiruna once held an unexpected record. For a while it was considered to be the largest town in the world, largest when it comes to the area it covered. Most of that area was of course wilderness. The city limits were later redefined to only include the urban area so now Kiruna's official size only a fraction of what it once was.
Northern Sweden is very sparsely populated. Kiruna exists only because there is a large iron mine there. Before the mine was opened in the late 19th century only a few very small settlement existed in
Frozen grass in the morning light
the area and the people who lived were pretty isolated from the rest of Sweden.
Iron is still mined today and the mining industry is very important for the local economy. Ironically (no pun intended) the mine which created the town in the first place is now about to destroy it. The iron ore forms a huge disc. The top of the disk, where mining started more than a hundred years ago, is well outside the town. But the disc is leaning towards the town so the deeper they dig the closer to built up areas they come. The mine is mostly under ground so it doesn't affect the town directly. But it causes cracks and subsidence at the surface which makes it unsafe for buildings. Therefore they have started a project with the aim of moving the town from its current location to one a few kilometres further away from the mine. Actually "moving the town" is not a proper description. "Tearing down the current town and building a new one" is closer to the truth because the plan is that only as few as 20 or 30 houses will actually be moved. It has been
known for a long time that the mine will one day threaten the town's existence so some of the building that have been or will be torn down was not built to last in the first place. But there are also houses of historical importance that might be torn down in the process of relocating Kiruna and that is a bit sad.
For a typical visitor there are quite a few things to see and do in and around Kiruna. For instance
• Nature: For lovers of wilderness there is plenty of wild land, forests, lakes and wildlife around Kiruna. Hiking is good in summer and skiing is good in winter.
• Aurora: Kiruna is a good place to visit if you wish to see the enigmatic lights in the sky known as the aurora.
• The Ice Hotel: A few kilometres outside Kiruna, in the village Jukkasjarvi, they each year construct a hotel entirely out of ice. The hotel is open during the winter and is abandoned in spring when it starts melting.
I was lucky enough to see the aurora one of the
The church in Kiruna
nights I was in Kiruna, and it is a fascinating thing to see. The aurora is very common in Kiruna but if you wish to see it timing is essential. In May, June and July you are unlikely to see it because of the white nights. The aurora is very faint and it has to be pitch dark to see anything. In winter you can see the aurora, however it is then likely to be very cold outside so bring lots of clothes. Also it if it is cloudy you can't see the aurora. The high likelihood of spotting the aurora in Kiruna is the reason why several research institutions are located in or near the town. It was these institutions I was there to visit to learn more about atmosphere and space research.
The purpose of this trip was to visit a few research institutions. They were Eiscat, where they study the atmosphere using radar technology, The Institute of Space Physics and finally The Department of Space Science at Lulea University of Technology.
About half an hour drive from Kiruna there is one more space related institution - Esrange Space Centre. At Esrange
How to photograph the aurora: Pick a dark spot. Set the camera on a tripod. Remove any filter you have. As a start use extremely long exposure and the largest aperture you have. I used 30 sekunds and f 2.8 and ISO 100 when I took this photo. Larger ISO and you can use a shorter time.
they launch rockets and research balloons and they help monitoring satellites among other things. They don't perform any space research themselves, they only make the actual launches. They launch suborbital rockets and high altitude balloons. They send the rockets into space and the instruments make measurements in flight. The rockets then land somewhere in the vast wilderness north-east of Kiruna they use as a landing site. When the rocket has landed they retrieve it using helicopters. Apparently this works pretty good because over the years they have only lost one rocket.
Worth noting is that Esrange is a pretty large employer in Kiruna. So if you ever visit a nightclub there and meet a local don't assume he or she is unintelligent. The person you meet might actually be a genuine rocket scientist…
With that little joke I finish this blog entry on Kiruna. Hope you enjoy the photos I took.
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